Seven Ways to Distribute Your Personal Property Fairly

Unlike money, personal belongings usually can't be divided equally after their owner passes away.  For this reason, distributing possessions like furniture, jewelry, dishes, silverware, artwork, photographs, or clothing is often the most difficult challenge in settling an estate.

Posted on April 29, 2024

It can help if the deceased person states in their will or in a separate memorandum who should receive what. In many states, reference within a will to a separate document with detailed instructions regarding tangible personal property makes the list binding. The list can be updated without changing the will, although it's a good idea to check with your lawyer when making changes to the list.

Often, items of little monetary value have great emotional significance. This can make distribution difficult when more than one person feels attached to a particular item. The process can also become the venue for playing out old family insecurities and grievances. Everyone may revert to the relationships they had as teenagers.

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      Choosing the Right Method for Distribution

      Most families are able to work out the distribution of personal belongings that the decedent has not directed in a suitable way. But if your family dynamics cause some concern, here are a few methods:

      • Draw box lots and take turns picking items. To make this method even more fair, change the order with each box lot. The person who went second in the first round goes first in the second round. For instance, if there are four children, the order of choosing personal items would flow as follows: 1-2-3-4, 2-3-4-1, etc.
      • Use colored stickers for each person to indicate what they want. The process may be expedited by each person putting a sticker on their preferred items. Where there's only one sticker on an item, it will go to that person. Where there's more than one sticker, then the family may revert to taking turns.
      • Get appraisals. Deciding on who gets what can become more difficult if some items have significantly more value than others. If families were to use the taking turns method of distribution, the person who gets the first pick may walk off with the only Rembrandt. It may be necessary for a few rounds for everyone to choose items of similar value, some people getting a single item while others choose several that together are worth as much as the most expensive possession. In other cases, the individuals getting the most valuable items may have to pay the other family members the value, or the family members may decide that the only fair way to sell the most valuable possessions and share the proceeds equally.
      • Make copies. While many personal belongings are unique, in the case of photographs and videos, copies can be almost as good as the original. Many family members will be happy with a copy.
      • Use an online service. FairSplit.com can help you catalog and divide personal property in an estate.
      • Work with a senior move manager. This person can serve as a trusted neutral third party to defuse strong feelings among siblings.
      • Bring in a mediator. Where there are conflicts among family members over particular items, estate attorneys often act as mediators, but you can also go to a trained mediator. This helps the family members get at the root of the interests with the process, healing past wounds and ruptures rather than exacerbating them.

      Stay updated on how to protect everything you’ve worked for so hard during your life.

        In many cases, families use a combination of methods to come up with a fair system of distribution. Sometimes, however, people’s schedules get in the way of everyone meeting in one place to make distributions, or the process gets dragged out for other reasons.

        Talk to an elder law attorney about how to avoid family strife over the distribution of personal possessions.

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