What do Robin Williams, Audrey Hepburn and Lady Diana all have in common? Their deaths triggered family inheritance feuds. Not over money, but over small, personal possessions.

Estate plans and wills direct how major assets such as bank accounts and real estate should be divided among heirs. But scant attention is paid to the other “stuff” that may have little monetary value but enormous sentimental worth. Examples: The box of family Christmas tree ornaments…Nana’s quilt…Mom’s pearl necklace…Dad’s fishing pole…even furniture and photo albums.

These heirlooms often provoke ugly estate battles and can rip apart families. Reasons: A deceased person sends powerful messages when distributing personal possessions, especially if the financial inheritance isn’t large. ­Family-conflict expert Marlene Stum, PhD, says that even if your family gets along well, divvying up hundreds of items in a deceased loved one’s household can be overwhelming. And doing it in the midst of grieving often stirs up rivalries, resentments and distrust.

Strategies to help distribute personal possessions and avoid feuds…

Leaving Personal Property to Your Heirs

Testators typically make a statement in their wills that says, “The contents of my home shall be left to my children”…or “My tangible, nontitled property shall be divided equally among my heirs.” Problems: This vague language provides little practical guidance and ignores the emotional consequences…and laws governing how wills are validated and interpreted and the transfer of an estate’s personal possessions can vary from state to state.

Best: Deal with the distribution issues while you are still alive. Not only does it offer you the opportunity to share stories, history and traditions with your heirs, they may be more willing to accept your decisions because you have explained your reasoning. What to do….

Ask each heir, “In the event something happens to me, I’m curious to know which of my items have meaning for you.” The feedback may surprise you. An item that you might have disregarded may be cherished by a loved one…or you may have promised an item to more than one of your children over the years…or a family member may just assume that he/she is getting something from your estate because he once expressed interest in it.

Distribute possessions that you won’t miss while you are alive. Gifting treasured items at special occasions makes them memorable. Example: You might give your granddaughter a piece from your jewelry collection at Christmas every year.

Create a Personal Possessions Memorandum (PPM), and have your attorney attach it to your will. A PPM is a handwritten or typed letter for the executor of your estate, detailing who gets which items once the will is executed. If you have an item of such great value, such as a rare work of art, that it would be unfair to leave it to one heir, you can stipulate in the PPM that it be sold and how the proceeds should be distributed. Advantage of a PPM: It is flexible up until the time of your death. It can be difficult to predict which exact items will be in your estate at the time of death. A PPM can be updated easily without the expense and inconvenience of changing your will. Thirty states recognize PPMs as legally binding, as long as the deceased specifically refers to it in the will. Your PPM cannot contain nontangible items such as bank accounts, IOUs or stocks and bonds.

If you die without a will: Your state’s intestate succession laws will govern who gets your personal possessions, regardless of your intentions. A court-appointed executor will oversee the distribution. Example: If you live in Minnesota and you die without a surviving spouse, your children divide the possessions equally.

If You Are the Executor

If the deceased person’s will uses vague language or doesn’t reference personal possessions, it is up to the executor of the estate to devise a distribution process. He/she should encourage input from the heirs about that process. If they feel their views are heard and agree on a fair process ahead of time, the chances of infighting are reduced. Steps the executor can take…

Meet with the heirs in person or by phone to discuss creating a fair distribution process. What to discuss…

Who gets to participate? Heirs often want spouses and children included when selecting items, but that can introduce unnecessary tension and conflicts.

Who gets special compensation? Should an heir who took the lead in caring for the deceased while he/she was alive have a priority in choosing possessions?

What should “equal” look like if the will stipulates that the estate’s possessions be divided
“equally”? Does equal mean that each heir gets the same number of items…or the same monetary value of items?

Compile an inventory of possessions. Have each heir review this list and express his/her interest in specific items. Break the inventory into three groups…

1) Items that multiple heirs want

2) Items that only one person has an interest in

3) Items no one wants, which can be sold or given to charity.

The items that are desired by multiple heirs can be distributed using agreed-upon methods such as…

Round robin: Heirs draw numbers to determine the selection order. In the first round, each heir selects one item in the order determined by the draw. In the second round, the selection order is reversed, etc. Advantage: This process can divide up a large number of possessions quickly.

Monopoly auction: Each heir is given the same amount of play “money” to bid on items. One heir might spend all his money to claim the antique dining room table, while another might choose to spread his money around on smaller items. Some families choose to have an open auction with bidding on one item at a time…others prefer that heirs submit written bids for the individual items at the same time. Heirs can talk and bargain with one another before the bidding. Advantage: This allows participants to prioritize the items they want the most.

Stay focused on distributing the personal property. Shut down personal attacks or nonproductive conversations (e.g., “Dad always gave you more than me!”). If the meeting or distribution process gets tense, remind the heirs that they should honor the person who died and his desire for the family to respect one another.

Make copies of items that multiple family members want—8mm movies, VHS tapes, CDs, digital files, etc. You also can make high-quality reproductions of letters, recipe cards, newspaper clippings, old wedding albums and other historical keepsakes.

If an item can’t be easily split or reproduced, consider a trade-off system. Example: For a set of fine china or religious items, one heir might have them for a certain time period, then turn them over to another.


The University of Minnesota’s website Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate at YellowPiePlate.umn.edu.

A senior move manager can oversee the inventorying and distributing personal possessions. NASMM.org

Software from FairSplit.com, an inventory-­management company that allows you to compose lists of items, upload photos and collaborate. Fair Split also offers upgrades, starting at $195, with more extensive estate-division tools, phone consultations and personal property valuation.

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