Peacefully Dividing Possessions

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Before she died, my grandmother gave me two Christmas ornaments that were part of a set she used to hang on her tree.  I believe she gave two similar ornaments to each of her many grandchildren.  I cherish them and love the memory of her that they bring every year at Christmas time when we decorate our tree.

Often, when a loved one dies, there are possessions that may not have great monetary value, but that are sentimental to more than one of the heirs.  Items like military decorations, the holiday China, or a rolling pin that mom used to make desserts may be hard to divide between siblings.  On the other hand, there may be things that are very valuable, like art work or jewelry, that should be kept in the family. It can be difficult to divide these types of items fairly between siblings.

Peacefully dividing these types of possessions can be especially difficult when there are multiple heirs who desire the same items.  However, there are several methods of making sure that the process is fair.  Most of these methods begin with making a list of items that are desired by multiple family members. This list should be widely circulated so that items can be added and removed as needed. For example, items that were given as gifts may be returned to the heir who gave the gift.  Things that were left at the home by an heir, such as a childhood baseball card collection, may likewise be claimed by the original owner.  Items that go together in a group, such as matching paintings or a set of China, should be kept together as a group.

Where it is clear that only one heir desires an item, then those items can be distributed.  Things should not be casually given out, thrown away, or donated to charity.  What may seem like trash to one heir might be a cherished memory for another.  When there are items that more than one heir desires, one of the following methods may be helpful for fairly distributing personal possessions.

Drawing Lots: Commonly, heirs will draw lots to determine the order for taking turns choosing items from the list of personal possessions. Then items are chosen in order of lots drawn until there is nothing left that the heirs desire.

Family Auction: Another system is to have a family “auction”.  Each heir gets a set amount of “money” to use in bidding.  This could be pennies, Monopoly money, or popsicle sticks.  Anything can be used as long as each heir gets the same amount.  Then heirs then bid on the items until they run out of “money”.  This allows those who have a stronger attachment to a certain item to place that value on the item at the expense of other items.

Lottery: In a lottery system the executor writes all of the items on slips of paper to place into a hat.  Items are then chosen out of the hat and awarded to heirs in a predetermined order.  The order could be oldest to youngest, youngest to oldest, or lots could be drawn to determine the order.  Items could then be exchanged after they are awarded if the heirs so desire.  This can work well where there is a large collection and each heir is awarded a couple of items from the collection through a lottery.

Bring in a 3rd Party: For situations where a trustee or executor expects contention, it may be wise to use a company such as Fair Split, where the division can be blind and run by a third party.

Some other guidelines may also be helpful.

  • Each heir should be heard and transparency should be paramount.
  • Only direct heirs should be involved: avoid bringing spouses and children into the decision-making process.
  • Valuation of items should be based on what the item could be sold for on consignment or at an estate sale, not the sentimental value of the item to one or more heirs.
  • Determine ahead of time who will pay for shipping – this could change the desirability of certain items to heirs who live in another state.

If you would like to know more about dividing possessions, or other estate planning options, please don’t hesitate to call for a free consultation.  I am an estate planning attorney in Spanish Fork, Utah.  While my office is in Spanish Fork, I provide estate planning services in Utah County and beyond.


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