By Attorney Ted Brown
There is no doubt about it: Americans have a lot of stuff. Surveys consistently show that of all the Americans that have a garage, the majority of them cannot fit a vehicle inside it due to the fact that it is dedicated exclusively to the storage of stuff. “Stuff” can be almost anything, from furniture, family heirlooms, collections, clothing, tools, valuables or all those things earmarked for that future garage sale.
The trouble is what happens to all that stuff when we die? Most of the conflicts that arises in the estates that I handle deal with that stuff. Heirs generally don't argue over the money or the land but they frequently argue over who gets the stuff.
Therefore, if you have stuff that is important to you, it is very important to address it as part of your estate planning. For example, if you have a trust you want to make sure that your personal property is properly assigned to that trust. You can then provided specific instructions about who gets what within the language of the trust itself.
Specificity is always a good rule of thumb. As much specific instruction that you can put in writing about who gets what, where that item is located and how to tell it apart from the other stuff can go a long way to smooth out any potential disputes. It is important that these instructions are written in a way that someone who doesn't know anything about these items can read and understand it. These instructions should be signed and dated by you at the bottom of the document.
If you do not have any specific wishes then it is important to provide a method by which disputes are to be settled. For example, items are to be sold and the proceeds divided if the heirs cannot agree. Or perhaps heirs can choose items by “drawing straws.” Use your imagination.
In most cases, when a resolution process is provided along with carefully written distribution instructions, it will usually be followed and can save the family years of conflict and heartbreak. Your stuff is an important part of your formal estate planning, particularly if you believe as we do that “it should be easier for those who are left behind”. Please be sure to find experienced elder law attorneys to help you with the process.