Preserving Family Harmony After a Death
After eighteen years of helping families through probate and post death administration, I have seen many family feuds. These emotional and costly fights are rarely about big assets like retirement funds, investment accounts or real estate. Families fight about “stuff” – sentimental items, family heirlooms, jewelry, furniture, and art. Most of these items have little to no financial value. Yet we all attach emotion and history to tangible items. One small inexpensive item soon becomes priceless. Many times the fights are over unresolvable misunderstandings or misperceptions.
The misunderstanding often happens like this: One child expresses after mother’s death, “Mom always wanted me to have the mantel clock over the fireplace. I’ll always remember her by that clock.” A sibling responds, “What? I was with mom when she died and she promised that mantel clock to me! That’s what mom wanted!”
Both son and daughter will end up spending thousands of dollars in legal fees for what they perceive mom would have wanted. Unfortunately, mom is not around to correct their misperceptions. The fight will tear apart the relationship of these two siblings and the hurt may last until the end of their lives. The last thing mother would have wanted would be to have her children’s relationship torn apart.
How do we resolve those conflicts before they happen?
The first step is communication. Families should discuss the issues of death, dying and legacy while parents are still alive. Don’t wait for the adult children to sort it out later. Ask your children what items bring back the best memories. Ask what items they want to remember you by. You may want to include in your discussion values, life lessons and instructions for any specific wishes to be fulfilled. This time spent together discussing important matters will be valuable.
The second step is take action. Get your affairs in order. Hire an attorney to prepare a comprehensive estate plan. That estate plan should resolve issues of tangible personal property by designating to specific people gifts of personal property like vehicles, jewelry, art or family heirlooms.
The third step is to simplify. Enjoy the experience of passing down specific items and heirlooms while you are still alive. Downsize. Get rid of clutter and stored items. My clients frequently report the most difficult and time consuming part of administering a loved one’s estate is sorting and disposing of tangible items.
Accept that downsizing can be challenging. Hold a private sale or garage sale. If you are concerned about value, find a trusted expert. Consider paying an hourly fee for an appraiser of household contents to help you accurately price items. Many things you consider worthless may have value to another. What you don’t sell, you can donate to one of many worthy charities in our community. You then receive the satisfaction of giving and the deduction on your tax return.
Most of all, remember that “stuff” is not as important as relationships. The time you invest in planning now can leave a lasting legacy of love and cooperation.