This month I completed the sale of my parents’ co-op in Queens. This is the apartment that I grew up in. The process of emptying the apartment (which I discussed back over the summer) has finally been completed. Most people, when they design their estate plan, think primarily about the large financial assets: real property, bank accounts, investment accounts, family businesses, etc. But let me tell you from personal experience, the most heart-wrenching decisions are who gets the “stuff.” I’ve found in my practice that family rifts and disputes are not over money, but over the little things that end up having little or no monetary value at all.
The family bible, the photo album, Mom and Dad’s wedding bands, Grandma’s heirloom hope-chest. These are the items that end up costing families more in harsh words, hurt feelings, and legal fees than any expensive property or valuable bank account. This is because these are the items that, although they may have a low financial value, have a high emotional value for families — a fact that many parents or grandparents do not consider when they are making out their Wills or Trusts. Luckily for me, living in an apartment didn’t give us the luxury of saving a lot of “memories.” If it wasn’t used, it didn’t stay.
Even though the Executor may be in charge, typically the heirs get to decide among themselves (or more commonly: fight among themselves) after your death as to who gets the crystal vase, jewelry, dining room furniture and handmade artwork. Instead, consider talking to the kids and grandkids about these memorabilia and emotional heirlooms right now. Keep in mind that this might not be an easy conversation to initiate. Most kids are reluctant to talk about, or even think about, their parents’ eventual passing. Believe it or not, many parents have found that they have to broach the subject more than once before their kids are willing to talk about it.
If you’re planning on giving your personal items to people other than your children, it is best to privately make up your own list of which heirlooms you’d like to go to which heir. After the list is written and signed, show it to your heirs ahead of time. This gives them the opportunity to voice their preferences or concerns while you’re still alive. In many cases simply knowing that you put time and thought into the giving of each heirloom makes heirs more likely to accept and appreciate your gifts when the time comes to receive them.
But know your heirs. If letting them know beforehand will cause arguments and them putting pressure on you, don’t show it to them. Who gets what should be your decision, not theirs. Although this list does not have the same legal significance as a Trust or Will, few heirs will not abide by it after your death. If it is that important that someone gets a particular item, then maybe that should go into your other estate planning documents such as your Trust or Will. If it’s an item that you no longer use, then maybe think about giving that item to that heir while you’re alive. I’ve seen it more than once where two (or more) people are claiming that Aunt So-And-So promised them the china. It’s not always easy to remember what you promised to whom. Remember, though, if there may be any hint of a disagreement, write it all down.