Question: My mother recently passed away. I am the nominated executor of her estate. Her Will directs that all of her personal property is to be shared equally among her children. Can you give me any suggestions about how to divide the personal property?
Answer: While it is relatively simple to equally divide cash and other financial assets, personal property can often be one of the trickiest parts of estate administration. I cannot tell you how often we see issues arise within a family over dividing personal property. Give yourselves time to grieve. Rather than laying claims to particular items right after the funeral, when emotions are at a peak, schedule a time a few weeks or months later when everyone can gather in person.
As Executor, you should get all of the beneficiaries to agree to the following ground rules to divide up your mother’s personal property:
- Leave spouses at home. The more people chiming in, the more emotions can escalate.
- Make an agreement with your siblings that dividing the personal property will not tear you apart. You all should acknowledge at the outset that you may say something hurtful and agree to forgive each other.
- Encourage each beneficiary to communicate what is most important to them.
- Decide on a process such as taking turns picking items. Choose a selection process that is fair. For those items with little financial value but lots of claimants, you might draw straws to establish a picking order. Each sibling gets to select one item at a time, and once the last sibling has picked, let him have another turn, going back through the picking order in reverse.
- Give items of real monetary value, like antiques and jewelry, special treatment. Start with an appraisal. Whoever wants the item can pay the other siblings for their shares with a reduced cash inheritance. If no one wants it, sell the item and split the proceeds.
- Things that are impossible to split should be sold. This way all siblings have sacrificed.
It is best to resolve issues regarding dividing personal property among the family. If an agreement cannot be reached, and litigation must be commenced regarding the division of the property, the estate will incur significant legal fees. Moreover, litigating could be emotionally damaging to the family members.