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Firearms, Christmas Ornaments, and Ice Cream Scoops

I’m a member of several Facebook groups that celebrate all things fall and Halloween (Forever Fall & Halloween, Autumn Lovers Unite, Halloween Unlimited, etc.). Please don’t unfollow our blog because of this confession.…

In several of the groups, the administrators have recently become annoyed with the abundance of posts about a new item available on Amazon – a light-up maple tree. The administrators admonished the group members to stop adding pictures of their light up trees as entirely new posts.

Needless to say, as an all-things-pumpkin-and-pumpkin-spiced obsessed middle-aged woman, I immediately ordered said light-up tree for myself. As soon as the package arrived, I unboxed it and placed the light-up maple tree in the middle of our living room. Much to my dismay, NOBODY in my family liked it (except my mom, who also doesn’t need more stuff). All three of my kids visibly grimaced and my husband poured himself another glass of wine as he pretended it was ok.

My response was to start plotting which one of the kids I would leave it to on my Personal Effects List (with a request that he/she cherish it as a family heirloom and pass it on to the next generation). Insert evil laugh here.

This does raise an interesting issue in the context of estate planning: What do you do if nobody wants your “stuff”? What do you do if more than one person wants a special item you have?

We generally recommend that clients approach the distribution of their personal effects as a two-part process. Assuming your will or trust authorizes you to use a written list (or “Personal Effects List”), the process can be straightforward. The list generally does not need to be witnessed or notarized, just signed and dated. Each item needs to be identified with enough specificity so that it’s clear what you are referring to (e.g., my “light-up maple tree” instead of “my fall decoration”). Also, the person needs to be clearly identified (e.g., “my cousin, Jenny”, instead of “any cousin of mine who might want it”).

Part one is identifying the specific items that should pass to particular people. Start with items that pop into your head immediately with this discussion, and keep in mind that items with almost no dollar value might have the most sentimental value to your family. We have recently been seeing the biggest disagreements over firearms, Christmas ornaments, and over the years, ice cream scoops. Yes, more than one family has hired litigators (read: spent lots of money) to fight over who will receive the family’s ice cream scoop.

Often, clients can predict which items will trigger a dispute among their beneficiaries, but not always. Frankly, had the clients known the ice cream scoop would be the item that caused their children’s relationship to disintegrate, they probably would have thrown it away before they died. So how can you address the unknown and unidentified potential triggers?

That’s where part two comes into play: clients can list the people who get to divide the items they didn’t specify, and how that process will work. For example, some clients say that their children only (and not spouses or grandchildren) will go into the house and take turns choosing unappointed items. Some clients will include spouses and grandchildren but give children two choices for every one choice of a spouse or a grandchild. The process is up to you, and you know your family best. The important point is to give your family some mechanism to decide who gets the socks and Tupperware (yes, we have seen fights over both of those items, too), without paying unnecessary attorney fees and ruining relationships.

In a later post, we can address some options that we don’t recommend (stickers, pictures, writing names on the back of items) and why those systems should not be used. We can also address what to do with the big dark furniture, the crystal, and the china that nobody seems to want anymore. In the meantime, anyone out there want a light-up maple tree (AFTER I die)?

Post by: Vickie R. Wilcox, J.D., LL.M. (Taxation)

Disclaimer: These materials are designed as a general overview and should not be relied upon for legal or tax advice. Please consult a qualified attorney and/or tax advisor for compliance and up-to-date information and advice specific to your circumstances.



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