And the Cut Crystal Goes To…



Linda M. Toga

ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT TASKS FACING AN ESTATE’S EXECUTOR is dividing up the personal property that his or her parents accumulated over a lifetime.

Although wills frequently direct the executor to divide personal property “equally” among a number of heirs, doing so is not always as easy as it sounds. One reason for the difficulty: The value of personal property is relative—it often depends on the memories or attachments the property invokes. Sometimes, the monetary value of an article comes second to sentiment.

For example, a chipped teacup may be priceless to a child if it was used by her mother every day, while the high-quality crystal vase that simply collected dust somewhere may have no perceived value because it has no emotional value. Since value is very personal, simply directing an executor to divide personal property “equally” may offer little guidance.

So how can parents avoid the anxiety that comes with distributing their personal effects?

One option is to distribute the most sought-after items as gifts—while you’re still alive. By gifting items during your lifetime, you’ll not only have the pleasure of seeing your children enjoy things that you have prized, your children will also have the opportunity to enjoy these items sooner. And, oh yes, there will (probably) be less post-mortem squabbling.

Another approach for making the distribution process easier is for parents to provide a list of all items—heirloom or mundane—that they believe the children would like to have and to ask them to indicate how much interest they have in each one. This may further simplify the executor’s job and help the family to get rid of items that no one is interested in keeping. The fewer things the executor has to consider, the better.

A variation on the second approach is to ask your children directly what items they would most like to have. Each family member can be asked to make a list of their favorite items and to rank them in order of importance. If two children put the heirloom china on their list, the one who ranked it higher would likely receive the china. Ultimately, the final decision would be left to the parents through the distribution plan set forth in their wills. Since it’s often difficult for parents to know how family members really feel about individual pieces of property, allowing them to prepare their own list of preferences should result in heirs being more satisfied with the distribution.

Regardless of the approach taken by parents, it’s important for heirs to recognize that their parents’ wishes represent the final say. Although a child may have preferred the sterling silver candlesticks over the watercolor painting, in the interest of family harmony, that child should graciously accept any bequests that are made—and move on.

Of course, upon the death of both parents, there remains yet another possibility: barter. One 19th century watercolor for four silver candlesticks, anyone?

Linda M. Toga is the owner of the East Setauket-based Law Offices of Linda M. Toga, P.C. where she focuses on estate planning and administration, as well as litigation and issues involving real estate and small businesses. Linda is a frequent lecturer and the author of LEGALLY SPEAKING which appears monthly in the Times Beacon Record Newspapers. Contact:

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