As is well known, the death of a loved one tends to bring families closer together or to tear them apart. In some cases, maybe a little of both. Families find many things to fight about when a parent or loved one dies. Understandably, the fighting is often not only about a specific asset, but about what that asset represents. Personal items that belonged to the loved one can bear a lot of sentimental value and therefore can become the center of bitter family disputes.
It is important for those engaging in estate planning to take this into consideration. Although it is nearly impossible to eliminate all chance of disputes, there are some things that can be done to reduce the likelihood that tangible personal property will become an issue during the probate process.
Probably the biggest thing that can be done is to communicate with family members early on about how particular items are to be disposed. Get a feel for who will appreciate and care for particular items. Coveted items can be offset by other property when necessary, or by lifetime gifting. Speaking to family about one's thoughts and intentions well in advance can help prepare them so they are not surprised later on.
Whatever plans one comes up with regarding tangible personal property should be itemized and incorporated into one's will. They can be incorporated simply be referencing a tangible personal property list. The list itself should be kept in a safe spot family can access, and should be updated periodically.
In some cases, it may be helpful--even necessary--to hire a professional executor in order to avoid discord. A professional executor will ensure that items are disposed according to the wishes spelled out in a deceased person's will, without letting personal feelings get in the way.
By taking these steps, one can significantly reduce the likelihood that disputes will arise over personal items. Of course, one should also consider the possibility of disputes regarding any and all assets, and this is certainly an important aspect of thorough estate planning.
Source: Wall Street Journal, "How to Avoid Estate Fights Among Your Heirs," Andrea Coombes, December 15, 2013.