My clients often come to me with a list of assets such as homes, bank and investment accounts that they would like to pass to their heirs. What is usually missing are the personal items that may not be expensive, but are priceless for their sentimental value. It is often these items that will cause the big family fights between children who feel there was not a fair division of these assets.
Most attorneys do not spend their time assisting with the division of the personal items; but that could be a huge mistake. “There aren’t any magical solutions,” said Marlene Stum, a professor in the family social science department at the University of Minnesota and author of “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” in the New York Times article When Dividing Assets, the Little Things Matter . The articles describes the emotional ties many children have with personal items. Her book offers six major principles to help people divide assets without tearing apart their family. Some of the principles should be obvious, like recognizing that items have different meanings to different people, that divisions like this come at emotional times and that no one in the family really knows the best way to do this.
I personally remember the remarkable way my sister, cousins and I divided my Grandma Sara’s tea sets and jewelry. We went around a circle each picking one piece after another. The process was emotional as we discussed each item and different memories of our loving grandmother. Since fairness means different things to different people, the process, whether it be drawing lots, letting people pick in birth order or devising something else to divide is valuable. What’s important is that the process is followed.
“Even if you’re really irritated that one sibling got what you really wanted, if you bought into the process, you’re probably going to buy into that outcome as opposed to the sibling who comes in and cleans out the house,” Stum said.
There is actually a software tool called “FairSplit” that allows children to divide assets without worry. According to the website, the “system helps move all parties toward agreement and lets each party know that the system provides them a fair and equitable way to divide. FairSplit helps divide things, not families.”
Sometimes the best strategy is the simplest one: Ask people what they want ahead of time. Also, it may also be simple to enjoy giving the gift of your personal items to your children while you are still alive.
Of course, such talks force people to confront the inevitability of death. The alternative is to keep quiet and risk a family divided. “You need to recognize the powerful messages in who gets what,” Ms. Stum said.