Avoid Strife Over Stuff

Plan a purposeful transfer of nontitled possessions

Every family has at least one cherished heirloom that has been passed down through the generations and is dusted with memories. Although these possessions might hold little monetary worth, their emotional value is incalculable. As part of the succession planning process, it’s critical to make a plan for passing on these personal items. 

“Recognize that possessions are important in people’s lives,” says Marlene Stum, University of Minnesota professor of family social science and author of “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?,” a guidebook about the family dynamics of inheritance. “Don’t let possessions be an afterthought.”

The transfer of nontitled assets such as guns, dishes, quilts and furniture is easy. Gift them during your lifetime or list who gets what in your estate documents, advises Minnesota attorney Shawn Vogt Sween. 

“Create a personal property memorandum, which is basically a list of what the items are and who gets them, along with a valid signature and date,” she says. The document, which can be a blank form provided by your lawyer or a handwritten list, must be referenced in testamentary documents such as a will or trust.

“Once a week, I have someone who says, ‘I’m just going to put masking tape on things,’” Vogt Sween says. “That will not work. Parents are usually the glue that holds a family together, and you can’t count on everybody to do 
the right thing.”

Remember Everyone. It’s common for people to mistakenly forget a grandchild, niece or another key person when allocating possessions. “There are powerful messages in who gets what, whether they are intended or not,” Stum says. 

To ensure everyone is accounted for, Vogt Sween suggests reviewing possessions and those who will receive them. “Try really hard to not forget classes of people,” she says. The sooner you start this process, the better the odds you will include all important items and people. 

Although many people wait until they craft their will to identify benefactors of possessions, Stum says, other circumstances also call for decisions to be made. For example, when successors take over a farm, they and their spouse might move into the farmhouse. 

“It starts to get messy when someone moves into the house,” she explains. “Do the possessions go with the house? This situation can raise a lot of tension that doesn’t need to be there.” Stum suggests at that point, the family should either divide the possessions or note when they will be transferred and to whom they will go. 

Checklist For Personal Property Handoffs

quiltFamilies often find inheritance decisions about nontitled personal property more challenging than titled property. Through the workbook and website, “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate,” the University of Minnesota provides resources about transferring such items. Follow this checklist to put a solid transfer plan in place. 

  • Understand the transfer of personal property is a sensitive issue. 
  • Ask family members which objects have the most meaning to them. Don’t assume.
  • Be sure to tell the story that goes along with each family heirloom. Do this in person or include a written or recorded history of the item and its significance to your family. 
  • Don’t try to be fair and equal in distributing your possessions; this is often impossible. Instead, decide what is fair in the context of your family. 
  • Regardless of how well you plan, conflicts are likely to arise during the process. Make an agreement to manage those conflicts by listening to concerns, discussing any problems and also reducing blame. 

For additional information and resources, visit www.yellowpieplate.umn.edu. 


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