Personal items — which may have modest monetary value but significant sentimental value — may be more difficult to address in an estate plan than big-ticket items. Squabbling over these items may lead to emotionally charged disputes and even litigation. In some cases, the legal fees and court costs can eclipse the monetary value of the property itself.
Create a dialogue
There’s no reason to guess which personal items mean the most to your children and other family members. Create a dialogue to find out who wants what and to express your feelings about how you’d like to share your prized possessions.
Having these conversations can help you identify potential conflicts. After learning of any ongoing issues, work out acceptable compromises during your lifetime so that your loved ones don’t end up fighting over your property after your death.
Make specific bequests when possible
Some people have their beneficiaries choose the items they want or authorize their executors to distribute personal property as they see fit. For some families, this approach may work. But more often than not, it invites conflict.
Generally, the most effective strategy for avoiding costly disputes and litigation over personal property is to make specific bequests — in your will or revocable trust — to specific beneficiaries. For example, you might leave your art collection to your son and your jewelry to your daughter.
Specific bequests are particularly important if you wish to leave personal property to a nonfamily member, such as a caregiver. The best way to avoid a challenge from family members on grounds of undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity is to express your wishes in a valid will executed when you’re “of sound mind.”
If you use a revocable trust (sometimes referred to as a “living” trust), you must transfer ownership of personal property to the trust to ensure that the property is distributed according to the trust’s terms. The trust controls only the property you put into it. It’s also a good idea to have a “pour-over” will, which provides that any property you own at your death is transferred to your trust. Keep in mind, however, that property that passes through your will and pours into your trust generally must go through probate.
Prepare a memorandum
A more convenient solution than listing every gift of personal property in a will or trust is to write a personal property memorandum. In many states, a personal property memorandum is legally binding, provided it’s specifically referred to in your will and meets certain other requirements. You can change it or add to it at any time without the need to formally amend your will. Even if it’s not legally binding in your state, however, a personal property memorandum can be an effective tool for expressing your wishes and explaining the reasons for your gifts, which can go a long way toward avoiding disputes.