Most people begin the estate planning process, because they believe that it will help their families, by making their wishes clear while they are still alive. And an estate plan will do exactly that when it comes to health care and major assets. But the traditional will or trust does not really specify who gets which personal items.
The reality is that most family feuds, when a loved one is gone, begin over grandmother's china or dad's Craftsman power tools, not the money. Let's face it. The scramble for cherished, material possessions can bring out the ugliest in people. Families fight over photos, jewelry, furniture, and even dishes because there is an emotional attachment to those items. These items remind us of the person that we loved, or a special moment that we shared with that person. And when that emotion is challenged by a family member during an especially vulnerable time, there are sure to be deep wounds that may never heal.
During the estate planning process, it is important to consider your personal possessions, just as much as your health care wishes, because it will undoubtedly minimize future family squabbles. It may be difficult to think about at first but here are a few strategies to consider to get you started:
Talk it out. Make your wishes known. Often, families do not discuss the subject of family heirlooms, because it never comes up in every day conversation. While you are on this path, take the time to talk with your loved ones about the heirlooms that you would like to pass down.
Make a list. Ask family members to outline which items are important to them and why. You may be surprised as to what personal items hold special value to your loved ones and which ones do not.
Write a Memo. Include a "memorandum of personal property" in your estate planning documents that allows you to list the personal property as well as the person that you would like to receive it.
Start Now. No one says that this process has to happen when you are gone. Start now. Experience the joy of personally giving some of your heirlooms to your loved ones today. Take your time and include a written letter, explaining the history of the item, the importance to you, and why you want to pass it on to your loved one.
The most important lesson is this: Don't let personal items wreck family relationships. Create a plan now and preserve your family memories. Do not let them turn into the "thing" that drives your family apart.