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Estate planning and family harmony: How to pass on cherished possessions without creating conflict

April 12, 2024 Article 5 min read
Julie Cotant Wealth Management Nadine Royer Wealth Management
After you’re gone, disputes over your possessions — whether they’re valuable or simply sentimental — can destroy family relationships. Here’s how your estate plan can set your loved ones up for success instead of conflict.
Family creating a plan for their grandmother’s personal property.Personal belongings. You spend a lifetime accumulating them, but you can’t take anything with you. So, what happens to them after you’re gone? Many people assume estate plans are created to avoid disputes over money, and that’s certainly an important motivation. However, we’ve seen families mired in conflict simply because they can’t agree who gets mom’s dog-eared cookbook with all the family’s favorite recipes in her handwriting.

Here’s how simple planning as part of your overall estate plan can help avoid family disputes and ensure harmony among those who will inherit your most prized possessions.

Why craft a personal property plan

Even the most tight-knit family can feel the strain when it comes to divvying up sentimental items, especially after a loss of a loved one. Arguments over what’s fair, who was promised what, who needs the money more, who’s most attached to a certain item, and so on are extremely common when parents are no longer around to play referee and make hard choices.

Clashes over irreplaceable items of sentimental value can severely damage family relationships. Dividing up property in advance — and including a list in your estate plan — can help reduce unnecessary tension. And making your list today isn’t just about avoiding heartache tomorrow: it can also save your children and loved one’s considerable amounts of money. Once attorneys and trustees get involved in settling disputes over your personal belongings, the hourly fees can quickly add up and eat away at whatever monetary bequests you’ve made.

Items to include in your personal property plan

To avoid family conflict, include an itemized list of any personal property of sentimental or monetary value in your estate plan. It’s especially important to include anything a family member has already expressed an interest in inheriting.

Common items to include on your personal property list are:

  • Art (paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, ceramics, art glass, etc.)
  • Cars, boats, recreational vehicles, ATVs, trailers, and other vehicles
  • Furniture and accessories
  • Decorative and holiday items
  • Collectibles, sports memorabilia, and autographs
  • Books, manuscripts, and paper ephemera
  • Tools and shop equipment
  • Electronics
  • Jewelry and watches
  • Clothing, furs, and accessories
  • Intellectual property such as patents, inventions, and the rights to designs, writings, and personal works of art
  • Family photos and heirlooms such as wedding bands and wedding dresses
  • Genealogical items and family history items such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, family trees, or religious heirlooms
  • Digital assets (photos, videos, writing)

Step 1: Ask who wants what

Sometimes people avoid making a personal property list because they suspect the family might not be happy with how they choose to divide their bequests. It may be helpful to ask who wants which items so you can make sure you’re giving things to the right person and distributing things in a way that feels fair. If you’d rather choose who gets what yourself, let everyone know of your decisions ahead of time. Even if family members aren’t happy with your choices, knowing them will at least let them know what to expect when you’re gone and may help avoid fights later.

Step 2: Make your list

We won’t sugarcoat it — going through your personal belongings isn’t a quick or easy task, especially if you have multiple homes. But the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll have peace of mind about your family’s harmony after you’re gone.

The simplest method may be to go through each home and inventory every item you consider worth passing on.

In your own handwriting or typed, identify and describe each item, where it’s located (for example, your home office, the beach house, your safe deposit box at First National Bank, etc.), and the full name of the person you wish to inherit the item. In addition to making a detailed list, it can be helpful to take photos of each item — next to a note with the recipient’s name — to avoid any misunderstandings.

Sign and date your itemized list at the bottom, and make sure your trustee knows where to find the list (and any duplicates). If you have labeled photos of the items, that will help your trustee. Keep in mind you can always update your list if you change your mind later on. The most recently dated list controls.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the thought that you have to account for every single item. When going through your personal property, feel free to leave out anything that doesn’t hold sentimental value for any of your heirs.

Step 3: Consider gifting items now, not later

Want to avoid the effort of making an inventory? Keep in mind that you can start giving away valued items now as part of an estate planning strategy — and this may even have tax benefits for both your estate and your heirs. As of tax year 2024, every American may transfer up to $18,000 in gifts (both personal property and cash) per person per year, meaning you can pass gifts of up to $36,000 in value to your child and their spouse, tax-free and without affecting your lifetime gift exemption. This applies to grandchildren, too, so you can gift quite a bit now, completely free of gift tax consequences.

You can also act today to be sure that everyone in the family has copies of items that may cause disputes later, such as favorite recipes and family photos.

Step 4: Get help

If you don’t leave instructions, you could be leaving behind an emotional and financial mess. Do your loved ones — and your trustee —a favor and include a list specifying who gets which items as part of your estate plan.

If you don’t know where to start, give your trustee a call. A professional can help you every step of the way, from advising you on where to start to guiding you through the family dynamics aspect of the task. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll have peace of mind that you’re leaving a legacy of love, not a recipe for conflict.

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