WILLS & ESTATES: Tips for disbursing household possessions

Wills and estates household possessions


How to make it easier to organize and allocate household ‘stuff’ when a parent has died

When people think about being an executor of a will, they often focus on the administrative part: Making sure they know where the will is, meeting with the lawyer, contacting beneficiaries, ensuring the paperwork is completed and filed properly, etc.

But in fact for many people, the more time-consuming – and sometimes headache-inducing – part of the process is going through the family home and determining what should be done with all the stuff that a person accumulates in 75 or 80 years of life.

Even if your parents (because it’s usually the adult children of the deceased who are tasked with this) had recently downsized and don’t have a huge basement of childhood gear to wade through, chances are they’ve got several rooms’ worth of furniture, several cupboards’ worth of china and kitchen tools, and several boxes worth of artwork and knickknacks. Some of it is nice, some of it is serviceable, and some of it should go directly to Goodwill.

But how do you manage it so that (a) everyone who wants one can receive some kind of memento; (b) the estate is compensated fairly for any items of high value; and (c) the process doesn’t start some kind of family feud because Aunt Mabel didn’t get that vase she’s always said she wanted?

Here are some tips:

Communicate with beneficiaries promptly and clearly. While executors are supposed to give notice to beneficiaries in certain ways and at certain times, the reality is that additional phone calls or emails to beneficiaries, keeping them up to date on the progress of probate or disbursements or tracking down a long-lost beneficiary can prevent family resentment later.

Get an independent appraisal. Pay a local antique dealer (typically $500-$1000, depending on the amount of stuff) to give you high-level values for everything in the house, from that supposedly-fantastic artwork in the living room to the set of pots under the sink. Make it clear that the appraisal will not lead to the dealer actually handling any sales, which will help ensure the values are realistic.

Make the appraisal list available to beneficiaries or people like Aunt Mabel. If that vase was appraised at $1200, it may be more than a memento – it may be an asset, and therefore not something you can just let her have when she stops by to help you clean out the house. Showing her some paperwork from an expert helps ensure no one (including Aunt Mabel) takes it personally when you’re firm about not letting people casually remove things from the home.

Invite children, grandchildren and other relatives to choose one item first. One of my clients invited all the kids and close relatives to their deceased parents’ home a couple of weeks after the funeral, and asked each of them to write down the one item they wanted, and one alternate. (All items had been assigned a value by a local auction dealer.)

The amazing result was that everyone got the item they wanted, and no one went away upset. Everyone felt like they’d gotten the one ‘special item’ they wanted, and the rest of the items were distributed without sowing the seeds of a long-term family dispute.

Insist that higher-end items are purchased from the estate – not given away unilaterally. When Grandma or Grandpa dies, there’s often a late-model car automobile left in the garage, and a grandchild or two who could use a vehicle to get to school or work.  Unless there is specific direction in the will, assets like this should be sold by the estate and the proceeds shared among the beneficiaries as outlined in the will. Sure, the grandchild hoping for a free car might be a little disgruntled now, but that’s better than all the beneficiaries feeling ‘cheated’ later on.

Try to remember that it’s just ‘stuff’. Losing a close friend or family member sometimes makes everything seem like a much bigger deal than it really is, or than it would be if you weren’t in the middle of the grieving process. Whether or not you get your mother’s lamp or your father’s old fishing rod is less important than ensuring you and your family have the time and space to grieve without additional stress.