No one really wants to inherit their parents unmentionables after they die (at least I don’t), but what about all the other personal items left behind?  From jewelry, furniture and antiques, to china, silverware, dishes and momentos, everything is an object over which a fight can ensue between siblings. 

The authority in the area of transferring personal items is a book, and now a website, called “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate.”  It is a great example of how family discord can erupt over the smallest of items.  Of course, “smallest” in terms of value in a monetary sense, but not so small in terms of sentimental value-which is precisely why these fights can be so personal. 

Exactly who is entitled to a decedent’s personal items (referred to as “tangible personal property” in legal jargon) and how is that property passed out after death?  Well there is a right way and a wrong way, and it’s hard to enforce the right way.

A few right ways.

Technically the property is supposed to be inventoried and then distributed according to the Trust or Will terms.  If the Trust or Will provides for specific items to go to specific people, then that must occur.  If not, then the beneficiaries can discuss who wants what and the Trustee or Executor must make a final decision in the event of a conflict.  Any property left over is sold and the proceeds from sale split evenly among the beneficiaries.

Or better yet, the parent or grandparent can give an item of personal property before death.  This is ideal because (1) it prevents any arguments relating to the parent’s intent, and (2) it allows the parent or grandparent to enjoy the act of giving (and witness the excitement of receiving) the gift.  It also ensures that the gift will be made.

The Wrong Way.

Imagine the decedent’s heirs going through his or her house and randomly taking personal objects without any authorization or direction.  They refuse to follow the terms of the Trust or Will and they fail to wait until a Trustee or Executor is in place to sort out the details.  Once a Trustee is in place, it is too late, the property is gone and trying to recover it is nearly impossible. 

The problem with the wrong way to pass personal items is that (1) it happens all the time, and (2) it’s hard to prevent.  It really depends on the people involved.  Will they wait to play by the rules or are they just going to do what they like?  And the costs involved in trying to recover personal property is far too high to justify doing it in most cases. 

At a minimum, a Trustee or Executor should try to secure the decedent’s home as soon as possible and take possession of the personal items as quickly as possible.  Of course, it’s not always so easy to know which personal items people will want.  Sometimes it can be the least obvious item, such as a pie plate.