Distributing personal property with your estate plan

Family Fighting Over Inheritance






Distributing Personal Property with your Estate Plan

One thing that I discuss with each of my estate planning clients is distribution personal property in their estate plan.

If you’re like me, over time you have collected a lot of “stuff”.  Furniture, clothing, sporting goods, jewelry, photographs, books, and on and on.  A good estate plan not only has a plan for your cash, your house and your accounts, but also your stuff.

Generally speaking, you can divide your personal property any way you like.  You can state in your will or your trust that important items are to go to certain people, or you can generally divide everything the same way as your cash and home.  So if you have three kids and they are each to receive a 1/3 of your inheritance then you can provide that each of them get 1/3 of your personal property.

A caveat, however:  The dividing of personal property is often highly contentious.  You might even have experienced this in your own family.  When a relative dies, it is common for an organized or unorganized looting of their personal property at their home to take place.  It’s during these lootings that a lot of old wounds can re-open.

As a young associate attorney in New Jersey, I can very clearly remember being asked to be the referee at a home of a deceased person.  There were two brothers who lived out of state and one sister, who lived with Mom (the decedent) and took care of her until she passed away.  So Mom rewarded the caretaking by giving her a slightly larger inheritance in her will.  The two brothers ganged up on sister and made the distribution of Mom’s estate a nightmare.  The division of personal property was as intense as any skirmish in the Hatfield and McCoy saga.  In any case, I ended up having to roughly guestimate the value of various knick knacks, antiques, souvenirs, heirlooms and photo albums collected, as we all do, over the course of this woman’s lifetime.

So how can you avoid this happening among your children or family when you are gone?  By a letter specifically stating who is to get what.  I called it a Personal Property Letter.  And it will usually be referenced in the will or trust.  It’s a simple document.  It gives the beneficiary’s name and a specific description of the item.  When you are gone, the executor divides everything by that list and it provides evidence of your intent, so no one has to guess.  It’s a simple solution to what can be a real problem.

Our firm makes the Personal Property Letter a part of every estate plan, large or small, simple or complex.