SAVVY SENIOR – How to Divide Your Personal Possessions Without Dividing the Family

Dear Savvy Senior,

Do you have any suggestions on divvying up my personal possessions to my kids after I’m gone without causing hard feelings or conflict? I have a lot of jewelry, art, family heirlooms and antique furniture, and four grown kids that don’t always see eye-to-eye on things. 

Conflicted Parent

Dear Conflicted,

Divvying up personal possessions among adult children or other loved ones can often be a tricky task. Deciding who should get what without showing favoritism, hurting someone’s feelings or causing a feud can be difficult, even for close-knit families who enter the process with the best of intentions. Here are a few tips to consider that can help you divide your stuff with minimal conflict.  

Sweating the Small Stuff

For starters, you need to be aware that it’s usually the small, simple items of little monetary value that aren’t mentioned in your will that cause the most conflicts. This is because the value we attach to the small personal possessions is usually sentimental or emotional, and because the simple items are the things that most families fail to talk about. 

Family battles can also escalate over whether things are being divided fairly by monetary value. So, for items of higher value like your jewelry, antiques and art, consider getting an appraisal to assure fair distribution. To locate an appraiser in your area, try ISA-appraisers.org, Appraisers.org or AppraisersAssociation.org.

Dividing Fairly

The best solution for passing along your personal possessions is for you to go through your house with your kids or other heirs either separately or all at once to find out which items they would like to inherit and why. They may have some emotional attachment to something you’re not aware of. If more than one child wants the same thing, you’ll have to make the ultimate decision. 

Then you need to sit down and make a list of who gets what on paper, signed, dated and referenced in your will. You can revise it anytime you want. You may also want to consider writing an additional letter or create an audio or video recording that further explains your intentions. 

You can also specify a strategy for divvying up the rest of your property. Here are some popular methods that are fair and reasonable: 

Take turns choosing:

Use a round-robin process where your kids take turns choosing the items they would like to have. If who goes first becomes an issue, they can always flip a coin or draw straws. Also, to help simplify things, break down the dividing process room-by-room, versus tackling the entire house. To keep track of who gets what, either make a list or use adhesive dots with a color assigned to each person to tag the item. 

Have a family auction: 

Give each person involved the same amount of play money or use virtual points or poker chips to bid on the items they want. 

Use online resources:

For families who want help or live far apart, there are web-based resources like FairSplit.com that can assist with the dividing process. 

For more tips, see “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” at YellowPiePlate.umn.edu. This is a resource created by the University of Minnesota Extension Service that offers a free video and detailed workbook for $12.50 that gives pointers to help families discuss property distribution issues and lists important factors to keep in mind that can help you avoid or manage conflict. 

It’s also very important that you discuss your plans in advance with your kids so they can know ahead what to expect. Or you may even want to start distributing some of your items now, while you are still alive.