Wills & Estates: Should I List Who Gets What in a Will?

Advice on writing a will, dividing your estate from Legacy.com expert Angie Epting Morris

I’ve often heard how a parent attempts to prevent heirs from fighting over items by predetermining who gets what or by giving things away in advance without all heirs present. Although it sounds smart and reasonable to make a “Who Gets What” list regarding furniture and personal items as part of an estate plan, it could cause more problems than it solves.

Predetermining future ownership of every item can be a daunting task. Many who have tried have realized that it can be nearly impossible. Also, it is often insignificant items that cause disputes, not larger or more valuable items. The following true story best illustrates this point:

Mrs. Thomas has four daughters: Sally, Jane, Beth and Ann. Twenty years after the girls have all married and left home, Mrs. Thomas decides to take care of estate matters and begins deciding which items go to which daughter in order to prevent arguments among them later. She designates an antique bed in the guest room for Sally and a special dresser of equal value for Jane (and so forth). Mrs. Thomas, however, doesn’t remember that the bed had been in Jane’s room in earlier years. After Mrs. Thomas has passed away, the girls come together to settle the estate and to divide up the furniture and household goods. Jane discovers that her mother has given “her” bed to Sally. Jane loved that bed – it had been in her room all through her childhood years. She is sure this must be a mistake. Sally is delighted because she loves the bed, too, and thinks it will be perfect for her daughter’s room. Since Sally’s daughter is the only “granddaughter”, she is certain Mama left it to her for that reason.

Innocent actions can generate hurt feelings and resentments that may last a long time – sometimes forever. By predetermining these items, Mama may actually have caused conflict instead of prevented it.

One alternative to consider is having the heirs themselves play a hand in deciding while you are still living. Many people go through “downsizing” or moving to a new area at a point in life after children have left home. This might be a good time to deal with the initial phase of this division process. A way to do this could be to have all the heirs come for a meal together -- without spouses and children. (NOTE: Most attorneys agree that many of the problems encountered during estate settlements are brought on by spouses and children of the heirs, not the immediate heirs themselves.)

During a casual meal, discuss your plans for the pending move and then announce that you are going to let some things go rather than move them all to your new but smaller house. Ahead of time, mark the pieces available with a sticker. After the meal, have the heirs go through the house and put their initials on stickers of items they are interested in having. If more than one initial is put on an item, have a simple method planned (like rolling the dice or drawing cards) for deciding who gets what.

While going through this process, you may see trouble spots among your children that can be dealt with to help avoid problems later. Furthermore, this provides a good opportunity to impress upon your kids the importance of remaining friends with their siblings for life.

Related articles:
Who Will Care for My Children If Something Happens to Me?
Your Safe Deposit Box
Storing Your Important Records
Obtaining a Death Certificate

Also by Angie Epting Morris:
Who Needs a Will?
What is an Estate Executor?
How to Settle an Estate Peacefully
Dividing Estates in Blended Families
Leaving Property to Your Children

Angie Epting Morris Angie Epting Morris is the author of THE SETTLEMENT GAME: How to Settle an Estate Peacefully and Fairly, a step-by-step guide addressing the age-old problem of how to divide personal property without dividing the family. Her system is widely used and highly recommended by attorneys and financial planners. The book is available on her web site, as well as on Amazon.com.

Photo by bjearwicke/StockXchng


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