Property transfer affects everyone

Everyone has personal belongings such as wedding photographs, a baseball glove, or a yellow pie plate. These items hold meaning for them and for other family members. Paring down and transferring such items is inevitable when a family member moves or dies. This issue affects families regardless of their financial assets, heritage, or cultural background.

It is an issue that affects everyone.

How you may be affected

The issue of passing on personal property is often assumed to be unimportant or an issue that it takes care of itself. The experiences of family members and attorneys suggest otherwise. Decisions about personal belongings — also known as non-titled property — are often more challenging than decisions about titled property or financial assets and may lead to family disagreements.

Decisions to pass on personal possessions are made within the context of long, complex, and sometimes complicated relationships typically among a variety of family and friends. Inheritance decisions can have powerful consequences for siblings, parents, in-laws, step-siblings, spouses from remarriages, domestic partners, same-sex partners, adopted children, and others who consider themselves family or friends. Such decisions involve dealing with the emotional and potential financial value connected to objects accumulated over a lifetime and across generations of family members.

Who gets personal property is an issue often ignored until a crisis occurs. Decision-making becomes more challenging and sensitive when people are grieving, selling the home they grew up in, or facing the increased dependence of an elder.

Few individuals have planned ahead regarding who should get what personal belongings. When there is no will, or no separate listing identifying the wishes of the property owner, family members are left with many dilemmas and decisions regarding the passing on of personal possessions. What are the "pie plates" in your life? Are you prepared for the challenges? 

What Is Non-Titled Property?

Non-titled property is a term referring to personal items without a legal document (such as a title or deed) to indicate who officially owns the item. These personal possessions may have monetary worth, or they may be cherished primarily for their sentimental value. Non-titled property can include such items as:

      • Furniture.
      • Dishes.
      • Pets.
      • Collections.
      • Sporting equipment.
      • Photographs.
      • Books.
      • Family documents.
      • Linens and needlework.
      • Musical instruments.
      • Guns.
      • Jewelry.
      • Tools.
      • Toys.

      Six factors to consider

      Research has identified six key factors to think about as you plan for the transfer of your own personal property, or as you work with family members or legal representatives to plan the transfer of property of someone who has already died.

      Use one of these quick assessments to see if you are prepared.

      Planning for the transfer of personal belongings is a challenge facing owners and, potentially, family members and personal representatives of the estate (the estate executors) who may be left to make decisions when a family member dies. Most people play one or more roles during their lives. To help you decide if you are prepared for the challenges you may be facing, take one of the assessments below related to your current or expected roles.

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      Marlene S. Stum, extension specialist and professor — Family social science

      Reviewed by the author

      Reviewed in 2018

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