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Families and Personal Property Inheritance: A Top Ten List for Decision-Making

Marlene S. Stum, Extension Specialist and Professor — Family Social Science

Reviewed February 2012 by the author.

Planning to pass on belongings that have special meaning, like grandma's yellow pie plate, can be challenging. The following tips will help you make decisions that are right for your family.

  1. Recognize that decisions about personal belongings are often more challenging than decisions about titled property. Assuming such decisions are unimportant or trivial can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
  2. Recognize that inheritance decisions can have powerful consequences — emotional as well as economic. Decisions about personal property involve dealing with emotional and potential financial value connected to objects accumulated over a lifetime and across generations of family members.
  3. Plan ahead. When decisions are made prior to death, the decisions can reflect the owner's wishes, and special memories and stories may be shared. Planning ahead versus waiting until a crisis or death offers more choices and a chance for thoughtful communication. The Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ Workbook resource,  Worksheet 7: Use Your Belongings as Props for Telling Family Stories (PDF), can help you share your memories, history, and rituals.
  4. Consider how to deal with conflicts before they arise. Issues of power and control do not disappear in inheritance decisions. Unresolved conflicts among parents, adult children, siblings, and others are often at the heart of what goes wrong with inheritance decisions. Listen for feelings and emotions, watch for blaming, and determine if you can agree to disagree if conflicts arise. The Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ Workbook section, Watch for Blaming (PDF), gives tips for minimizing blaming behavior.
  5. Remember that different perceptions of what's "fair" are normal and should be expected. Those involved need to uncover the unwritten rules and assumptions about fairness that exist among family members.
  6. Consider all options. Being fair does not always mean being equal. In fact, dividing personal property equally is sometimes impossible.
  7. Ask others for input. Individuals who have input and agree on how decisions are made are more likely to feel the outcomes of those decisions are fair.
  8. Discuss what those involved want to accomplish. This will help reduce mistaken assumptions and misunderstood intentions. It will also make choosing distribution options easier.
  9. Ask others to identify items that have special meaning to them. This will help minimize inaccurate assumptions about who should get what. Not everyone will find the same items meaningful.
  10. Put wishes in writing. By creating a separate listing mentioned in a will, for example, you will reduce the dilemmas and decisions for estate executors and surviving family members.

Related resources

Families and Inheritance Project — Learn more about this research project, which seeks to understand the meaning and experience of fairness in the context of family inheritance decisions.

Communicating under pressure — During stressful times, it is easy to experience misunderstandings that sometimes result in adding more stress to the situation. Part of the Getting through tough times series.

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