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A top 10 list about personal property inheritance

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When a loved one dies, knowing who to give their belongings to can be challenging. The following tips will help you make decisions that are right for your family.

  1. Decisions about personal belongings are often more challenging than decisions about titled property. Assuming such decisions are unimportant or trivial can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
  2. Recognize that inheritance decisions can have powerful consequences — emotional as well as economic. Objects accumulate over a lifetime and across generations of family members. Decisions about personal property involve dealing with emotional and financial value.
  3. Plan ahead. Planning before the owner dies helps ensure decisions will better reflect their wishes. Share special memories and stories that help everyone understand an object's value. Planning ahead offers more choices and a chance for thoughtful communication. The Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ Workbook,  can help you share your memories, history, and rituals. See Worksheet 7: Use Your Belongings as Props for Telling Family Stories (PDF).
  4. Consider how to deal with conflicts before they arise. Issues of power and control do not disappear in inheritance decisions. Unresolved conflicts among parents, adult children, siblings, and others can surface now. These conflicts are often at the heart of what goes wrong with inheritance decisions. Listen for feelings and emotions. Watch for blaming, and determine if you can agree to disagree if conflicts arise. The Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ Workbook section, Watch for Blaming (PDF), provides tips for minimizing blaming behavior.
  5. Remember that different perceptions of what's "fair" are normal and should be expected. Those involved need to figure out the unwritten rules and assumptions about fairness that exist among family members.
  6. Consider all options. Being fair does not always mean being equal. In fact, dividing personal property equally is sometimes impossible.
  7. Ask others for input. When people have a say in decision making, they are more likely to feel the outcomes of those decisions are fair.
  8. Discuss what people involved want to accomplish. This will help reduce mistaken assumptions and misunderstood intentions. It will also make choosing distribution options easier.
  9. Ask others to identify items that have special meaning to them. This will help minimize inaccurate assumptions about who should get what. Not everyone will find the same items meaningful.
  10. Put wishes in writing. For example, create a separate listing mentioned in a will. You will reduce dilemmas and ease decisions for estate executors and surviving family members.

Marlene S. Stum, Extension specialist and professor, Department of Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2012

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