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In the days after a person dies, some family members may decide to take matters into their own hands. These individuals may have a key to the home and decide they are going to take items they want. Before the Will is even read, furniture, jewelry, artwork and other items may disappear. Cash around the home may be grabbed. In some cases, trash bags of stuff are hauled away. Family feuds may erupt when other beneficiaries find out items are missing.

In some families, nothing brings out greed and long-time resentments like divvying up sentimental items that remind adult children of their childhoods. The situation can become even worse if it involves divorce, a blended family or an unmarried couple.

Splitting up material possessions among family members can be more acrimonious than dividing up financial assets. If there are four heirs and a bank account worth $10,000, it’s easy to divide it with each person receiving $2,500. But how do you divide a diamond ring or antique teapot four ways?

Unfortunately, some families wind up incurring large legal expenses over non-titled items that have more sentimental importance than monetary value.

The executor should inventory the assets as soon as possible – before family members get a chance to remove items. If a valuable or important item is taken, and the person responsible refuses to return it, a court can step in to order the item back into the estate. If the executor knows there are outstanding keys to the decedent’s house, or is concerned about someone coming in without authorization, the locks should be changed.

Here are some steps you can take to prevent these types of disputes from occurring after you die:

Give away gifts while you are still alive.  If there are specific items you want to go to loved ones, present them now. In other words, get them out of your estate. It can be rewarding to see your prized possessions go to individuals who appreciate them. Depending on the size of your house, you may have thousands of items. Throw away or donate things you no longer need. A donation to a qualified charity may result in a tax deduction.

Make specific bequests in your Will or in a letter of intent.  If you want your car to go to your daughter or your golf clubs to go to your grandson, put it in writing. Without detailed instructions and guidance, the executor may have to devise an equitable system for distributing your possessions. That can place a large burden on the executor and lead to disputes among your heirs.

Choose your executor carefully.  The executor generally exercises discretion in distributing personal and household items. So it’s important to name a trustworthy person with a fair, impartial, reasonable personality – especially if there are sibling rivalry issues. You want someone who will fulfill your intentions. The right executor can reduce the chance of litigation.

No matter who you name as an executor, the individual will appreciate clear, written instructions.


If you have any questions on estate planning, please call Karen L. Stewart, Attorney and Counselor at (248) 735-0900.

For more information, please see my website, www.customestateplans.com.

Excerpts taken from an article in the EHTC newsletter dated February 7, 2018.