29th Jul 2014
One of the hardest parts of settling an estate is dealing with personal property. Personal property can include cars, jewelry, tools, furniture, and valuable antiques. More often than not, it also includes a treasure trove of family history. It may include a boatload of worthless tchotchkes or, even worse, piles of moldy or infested trash that provide a sad window into a loved ones’ mental decline.
An executor’s job is gathering the assets, paying expenses, making distributions and accounting for these things. Their job is also refereeing who gets Grandpa’s old recliner (true story). The personal property may have very little economic value but beneficiaries often have a very sentimental feeling toward these things. There can also be a power play between beneficiaries that has nothing to do with the property but more to do with old resentments and sibling rivalry.
Second marriages often up the ante on the potential for a dispute among the beneficiaries. Dad’s biological children from his first marriage can become furious that their Mom’s furniture has been passed on to the evil step-mom.
It is vital that an estate plan clearly states who gets what. Do not assume that everyone will “just get along”.
It may become so heated that the executor just throws up their hands and goes to the Court for direction. Here’s where the time and costs increase greatly. Emotional family members often think that a real life courtroom will be the same as the one on TV. It’s not! The law can generally not stop people from badmouthing each other or ensure that Thanksgiving is warm and fuzzy.
In the end, it’s just “Stuff”. We human beings can have odd relationships with material things. We think shiny things are valuable, think more is better than less, and often want what others have just because they have what they have. For good or bad, our possessions help define us, much like our families do.
Clients need to know that they do their families big favors by clearly expressing (ideally in a legally valid document) how they want their possessions to be distributed. Communicating about all aspects of estate plans is always a good idea. It will usually make an executor’s job easier, will help diffuse beneficiaries’ emotions, and will greatly help any judge charged with sorting out who gets what. Conveying intent is not so much about what we want to happen to the personal property as it is about how we wish to treat the people we leave behind.