In planning our estate, we often spend much of our energy on deciding how to distribute the home and the cash, and we often overlook the personal items. In my practice, I see families distributing large sums of money and real estate rather smoothly. Then, when it comes to personal property, family conflict arises. From an outsider’s perspective, it can seem somewhat ridiculous - fights over a couch, a ceramic pot or a blanket.
However, once memories and emotion are added to the picture – such as the family sitting on the couch enjoying each other’s company watching a movie or playing music together; or that we had made that ceramic pot in school and had given it to our parents; or that our grandmother, while in the hospital just prior to her passing, had painstakingly hand-quilted the blanket – they can carry great sentimental value.
Psychologist Steven Hendlin, in his book, Overcoming the Inheritance Taboo, writes that because the personal property holds the memories of our loved ones who have passed away, we want to hold onto these items. Often, Hendlin says, it is the fear of forgetting our loved one that drives the desire for a particular object. And, the consequence may be huge - many family members risk their relationship with another family member over an object that often possesses no financial value. Parents would not wish to see their children fighting over personal objects.
Knowing that conflict can easily surface over personal assets, what can we do? The State of Hawai‘i allows us to write down our wishes in a separate writing, often referred to as a Personal Property Memorandum. You simply make a list of your personal items, designate the beneficiary, and sign and date it.
After you prepare the memorandum, talk to your family about the list. The family discussion can help provide clarity and reduce the chance of any misunderstanding.
And, finally, these family heirlooms that connect us to our loved ones often come with a story. One priceless gift we can give to our children, our siblings and to our children, is to relay the story about the heirloom, preferably in writing.
When my mother passed away, my brothers and I put all of the personal items onto a table with the hope of taking turns telling a story about each of the items. Sadly, very few stories were told. We didn’t know the reason why my mother or father kept a particular personal item, or even whether it came from upstate New York where my mother is from, or from Hawai‘i, where my father is from. My office provides what we call “My Heartfelt Will” to our clients to write down these stories, so we don’t risk losing them.
So, when making your estate plan, remember to pay attention to the personal property as doing so can reduce confusion and conflict, promote family harmony, and preserve family history.