Perhaps the best way to learn about how we are all affected by the issue of personal property inheritance is to understand the experiences of real families.
Here are a few of the stories people have shared with us over the years. Names and personal details have been changed to protect family privacy.
Personal belongings can trigger sensitive memories and feelings
"When Mom died, my sisters and I had already graduated from high school and left home. Several years later, Dad remarried and his new wife moved into 'our home.' When Dad died, many of the items that belonged to my parents stayed in the house with my stepmother. Once she died, all of our parents' belongings — and the memories that went with them — went to my stepmother's children. We still feel hurt and angry when we see the milk glass candy dish from our family at our stepsister's house. The dish was given to my parents as a wedding gift. It's just not fair! Why should she have it?"
Identify your goals for a more successful process
"As a young boy my mother started me out with a stamp collection. My folks never had much, but Mom bought a couple of pages, mounts, a few stamps and a book about collecting to get me started. I've been collecting stamps for over fifty years now. My wife and I have been talking about making a list of who should get what things when we die. She says I need to decide about my stamp collection. I've talked to each of our three children and none of them seem interested. Our grandchildren, nieces and nephews aren't interested either. I know I could sell it for at least $10,000 but I don't want to. I would really like someone in my family to care about it, to carry on the tradition, and to get as much pleasure out of the collection as I have."
People differ over what is a fair process and outcome
"I am so overwhelmingly sad. When Mom died, my three older sisters took it upon themselves to divide up Mom's dishes and household items. They assumed that, as a guy, I wouldn't want any of these things. At the time, I didn't object. I was used to having them boss me around. Now I have two beautiful daughters who will never have a special remembrance from their grandmother. I wish I had something of Mom's to give my daughters. Who should get to make the rules? What would have happened if I had stood up to them?"
Learn what objects have meaning to you and to others
"I was very surprised when three of my seven adult children said they wanted a 25¢ Christmas tree ornament that had special memories for each of them. It is a carousel-shaped ornament with a red metal fan inside that spins around when placed over the heat of a tree bulb. As the children were growing up, they were fascinated with it. I still have the challenge of deciding which one of the three should receive the decoration. However, without asking, I would never have known that it was special to them."
Consider distribution options and consequences as you plan
"I had a minor stroke last year and it really got me thinking. My husband, Corky, died four years ago, and we never talked about what would happen to our belongings. He inherited everything from his parents because he was the oldest, but his brother never spoke to him again. I couldn't stand the thought of that happening with my kids, so at a family dinner I brought up the subject. We started talking about what was fair, agreed to meet again, and now those decisions have all been made. I'm ready to meet with my attorney. I can't tell you how relieved I am that my children won't fight about this after I'm gone."
Learn skills that will help you manage conflicts
"There are six daughters in my family. The three oldest each had their own baptismal gown, while my younger sisters and I all shared one gown. After Mom died, my sister Connie (second youngest) was pretty upset about which of us younger girls would get the gown, or how we'd share it and who would decide. Every sister had a different opinion, and some of the discussions got pretty heated. Finally, Ann suggested the younger sisters draw straws for three special items: the shared baptismal gown, the First Communion dress worn by all six of us, and Mom's wedding dress. It turned out to be a great solution."
Transferring belongings can be a very sensitive issue
"We have this pink glass bowl in our family. For three generations it has been passed to the first-born granddaughter. My aunt has it now, and I thought it would go to my dad's oldest daughter, because she's the oldest granddaughter. But my aunt, Mom's sister, just told me that during the war when Dad was overseas, Mom was raped one night — so my oldest sister isn't really Dad's daughter. That's why Dad has said for years that he only has one daughter. Mom never said a word about this family secret and my sister doesn't know."
It helps to plan in advance
"When Emma invited her four children to spend a day with her and requested that no grandchildren or spouses come, her children wondered what was up. At the time, their 85-year-old mother was planning to move from her home of 45 years to a nursing home. The children gathered and spent the day going through Emma's property with her. Emma took an item, talked about where it came from and then the family talked about their memories related to the item. Next they decided who should each have the item. Nine months later when Emma died, the children couldn't help but appreciate the special day they had shared together with their mother before she died. What a wonderful celebration of her life it had been!"
Being fair is important to many
"Recently, my parents died within three months of each other. My sister, brother and I have been going through the house, making decisions about who gets what. It's gone pretty smoothly. There is only one item in the whole house that all three of us would really like to have: the Winnie-the-Pooh book that Mom read to us when we were young. It was always kept in the corner bookshelf in the living room. For now we've decided it will stay on the bookshelf, because my brother is moving into the house, and we can't figure out a fair way to decide who gets it."
Belongings can carry family history
"One evening last week I stopped by my parents' house to visit. Mom shared that she had gone to a gathering that afternoon where they were instructed to bring the oldest item they had in their home. I asked her what she had taken. 'I took the pen your dad got from Father Greiner when he served Mass as a child. It's a silver pen that writes black, red and blue when you push various buttons down. Father Greiner brought it over from the Netherlands when he immigrated.' Later that evening it struck me that at 43 years old, I had never seen this pen or heard the story before. Had we been cleaning out my parents possessions after death, I wouldn't have known a thing about the pen or its history."
Keep goals in mind when considering distribution options
"When my grandfather died in late spring, he left a list of what items should go to whom in the family. Rather than disposing of these items immediately after the funeral, our family chose to reconvene at Thanksgiving for what we called 'The Great Giveaway.' After a wonderful turkey dinner, Grandpa's list was read and each person received the items designated for him or her. As they did so, each took time to share their memories of the fun times and special moments they had shared with Grandpa. I will always remember it as a very special day."
Disagreements can damage relationships
"Auntie Opal always said she wanted to wear her wedding ring with the three rubies forever — including taking it to her grave. Everyone in the immediate family knew of her wishes. When Auntie Opal died, I noticed her wedding ring was on her finger at the visitation. When all the visitors had left, Auntie Opal's oldest daughter said she was going to take the ring off because it had been promised to her. Her sisters quickly jumped in and each said, 'No, it was promised to me!' Their brother said, 'Mom told me I should have it because I'm the only boy and I should decide which of my girls should have it when she gets married.' They all started screaming at each other, each of them trying to reach for the ring. The funeral director came in and asked how he could help. He removed the ring, and without much thought gave it to the oldest sister who had been most involved in making the funeral arrangements. Even though the screaming continued, she kept the ring. To this day, no one in our family dares mention that ring."