Who gets grandpa’s guitar pick collection?

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For a variety of reasons, many individuals — even those who have created thoughtful estate plans — fail to create plans for the distribution of their personal property following death.

People address these items in their estate planning with broad statements, such as “Divide my tangible personal property equally among my children.” They likely imagine their children calmly taking turns picking out the furniture, electronic devices, jewelry, artwork, vehicles, collections and so forth that have great sentimental value to them — then working together in harmony to determine which of the remaining items should be donated, sold or given to other family members.

Unfortunately, the scenario often plays out much differently. If you have more than one heir, a vague direction like this could lead to arguments about who receives an item multiple people want, about whether “equally” refers to quantity of items or value, or about an item you allegedly told someone they would receive but failed to put in writing.

Keep in mind your family members will be grieving at this time, which might cause them to feel especially attached to items that belonged to you during your life — even if those items have little or no monetary value, such as your guitar pick collection. Arguments over personal property can damage family relationships and even lead to lawsuits.

Five steps to avoid conflict

You can help avoid this conflict with a little extra thought and preparation:

  • Do create a list of specific items you would like to be distributed to particular individuals. Michigan law provides an estate plan document may refer to a separate list distributing items of personal property. So long as that list is either handwritten or signed, it will be legally enforceable. The list may be created before, after or at the same time the estate plan is drafted and can be revised at any time but do be sure to date each list. Keep the list with your estate plan documents so it will be easy to locate following your death.
  • Don’t use name stickers to mark items for family members. While this seems like an easy way to allocate household items, it’s impractical and risky. Stickers can fall off over the years, and family members could rearrange them, leaving a mess to sort out later. 
  • Do provide a method for family members to select items of personal property not allocated to specific individuals. It is likely your family will want some items of personal property in addition to those you allocated. Your estate plan documents can allow them to select the items they desire to have. To reduce arguments, a selection method should be specified. You also should specify what is considered an “item” — a single guitar pick or the full set? The family will understand whether you intended them to break up the collection and allow each person to select a guitar pick or whether the collection should be kept together for a single person.
  • Do have a written plan for what should happen to the personal property family members do not wish to keep. Inevitably, your family members won’t want a large portion of your personal property. If you have a preference as to whether those items are sold or donated, you should include a corresponding direction in your estate plan documents. If there is a particular charity you’d like to support that would benefit from a donation, include a donation instruction in your estate plan documents.
  • Don’t expect your children to behave better after your death than they did when you were alive. If they argued over things while you were alive, it’s fair to assume they will continue to argue after you are gone.

Knowing how difficult the months after your passing will be for your family, it makes sense to ease their burden and provide them with some guidance as to what you would like them to do with the items that are not accounted for elsewhere in your estate planning.

Beth O’Laughlin is a partner with the law firm Warner Norcross + Judd LLP who concentrates her practice in trusts and estates planning. She can be reached at bolaughlin@wnj.com

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