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Passing on Personal Possessions and Inheritance Decision Making — A top ten list

Few families escape making decisions about passing on personal possessions. Paring down and deciding if and how to transfer personal possessions is inevitable when a family member downsizes, declutters, moves or dies.  While it may seem simple, decisions about personal property can be challenging and lead to serious family conflicts. Are you prepared for the challenges? The following tips will help you make informed decisions.

  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 personal property decisions can have powerful consequences — emotional as well as economic.  Decisions about personal possessions involve dealing with the emotional and potential financial value connected to objects accumulated over a lifetime and across generations of family members.
  3. Plan ahead. Planning before the owner dies helps ensure property decisions will better reflect their wishes. Planning ahead offers more choices and a chance for thoughtful communication. It allows sharing special memories and stories that help everyone understand an object's history and importance.
  4. Consider how to deal with conflicts before they arise. Issues of power and control among family members 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.
  5. Discuss what people involved want to accomplish. This will help reduce mistaken assumptions and misunderstood intentions.  It will also help guide decisions and keep everyone moving in the same direction.
  6. Remember that different perceptions of what's "fair" are normal and should be expected. Those involved need to uncover often unwritten rules and assumptions about being fair that exist among family members. Negotiating both fair outcomes and processes is critical. Being fair does not always mean being equal. In fact, dividing personal property equally is sometimes impossible.
  7. 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.
  8. Consider potential distribution options and consequences.  Determine what options will help accomplish your property transfer goals and make sense for your situation (i.e. gifting, selling, donating, private or public auctions).
  9. Put wishes in writing. Create a separate listing of important property to be transferred and mention the list in your will. Your wishes can then be known and carried out by estate executors and surviving family members.
  10. Use proven Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ resources. Research-informed practical strategies to optimize your inheritance planning and protect your family relationships when passing on personal possessions are available. The Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ workbook and video are valuable tools whether planning in advance for your own personal possessions, or working with family members to distribute property after a death. Learn more at yellowpieplate.umn.edu.

Author, Marlene S. Stum, Ph.D. Professor and Extension Specialist, Family Social Science, University of Minnesota.  Revised 2019.

Reviewed in 2019

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