Estate Planning – How to divide up the “stuff” without going all ‘Corleone’

In working with clients, we (attorneys) are generally focused on the financial assets. These assets are usually easy to value and easy to quantify when a client says they want to be “fair,” in dividing those assets among the beneficiaries.

What about the “tangible personal property” a/k/a “the stuff”?” This includes things like Mom’s Christmas platter, a ceramic turkey that has been used as a Thanksgiving centerpiece for your entire life, golf trophies, fishing gear, a blanket from someone’s college football or soccer days. Often clients are left on their own to distribute these items. The fact that you could go buy the same thing at Homegoods for $25 is completely beside the point.

The emotional weight of that relationship is tied up in those “valueless” things. If child C has an extreme emotional attachment to that Christmas platter or child B to that fishing gear and Mom or Dad hasn’t made specific note of that and “earmarked” those items for child C and B respectively, child A, as executor/personal representative, could just give it away, or sell it without realizing. Maybe child C would like some of the household items because one of their kids is setting up a house for the first time. Acting out of ignorance, of these needs/wants and selling/giving these things away could fester among siblings for the coming decades and permanently ruin A’s relationship with B or C…’cause chances are A, B and C aren’t talking about this coolly at the time.

“I ask parents to think just for a second what it would be like on Christmas morning if your children ran downstairs and there were all of these presents, bright and shining, big and small, but with no name tags on them,” he said. “Can you imagine the free-for-all that would ensue?” says John Warnick of the Purposeful Planning Institute. (see NYT link below)

As usual, the best way to address this is directly between parents and children, ahead of time.

“If one child loved the cuff links or one child loved a painting, wouldn’t it be helpful to know that in advance?” said Stacy Allred, a wealth strategist and the leader of the Center for Family Wealth Dynamics and Governance at Merrill Lynch. “It turned out different people had the highest affinity to different items. Then, the value was equalized at death with other assets from the estate.

“Keeping quiet [risks] having [the] stuff becoming the stand-in for emotions that roiled a family while the parents were alive,” said Marlene Stum, a professor in the family social science department at the University of Minnesota and author of “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?”

So, assuming we don’t always do what we should do…yes there’s an app for that.

Fairsplit is one of many apps designed for this (and other) situations – death, divorce and downsizing. “The tool uses selection rounds so that each child or grandchild can pick the things they want, assigning more points to things they covet. “

There are also “old school” ways to do this that are actually fun. One idea offered in the Washington Post article involved Monopoly money.

“Years ago, dad invited [the kids]to [their] house. When we arrived, dad had laid out all of the household artwork, photos of furniture, books and other ‘tchotchkes’ into the living room…Then he gave each of us $2,000 in monopoly money and announced he would conduct an auction…If any of us wanted something of my parents after they were gone this gave us the opportunity to bid on it. Not only did the auction determine who got what, but my parents had a great time watching us bid on stuff that wasn’t worth $2 but had special meaning to us.”

Bottom line: doing nothing is always the worst option. Even under the best of circumstances the loss of a family member is emotionally fraught. That ceramic turkey can be the event that can send the remaining family members “to the mattresses.”

New York Times – When Dividing Assets The Little Things Matter – April 2016

Washington Post – Divvy Up the Inheritance and Keep the Family Together – June, 2018