Passing on personal possessions
Almost everyone has personal belongings-such as wedding photographs, a baseball glove, or a glass dish-that contain meaning for them and for other members of their family. What happens to your personal belongings when you die? Who decides who gets what? How can decisions be made during one’s lifetime?
Planning for the transfer of such items is a challenge facing the items’ owners, family members and legal representatives who may be left to make decisions when a family member dies.
Houses, land, and automobiles have titles, while tools, a set of china or family photos do not. It should be no surprise that the transfer of non-titled personal property can create more challenges among family members than the transfer of titled property. Here are some reasons why:
- Personal belongings have different meaning for each individual.
- The sentimental value or meaning attached to personal property is what’s often important, not the dollar value.
- It is often very difficult to divide items having sentimental value in a way that all parties consider to be fair.
- People commonly have different perceptions of what is a fair process and what are fair results.
- Talking about one’s possessions is much more personal than talking about other types of financial assets. It often means facing one’s own death, as well as the death of family members.
When it’s not easy to measure the value of someone’s personal possessions in dollars, transferring such property becomes even more challenging and sensitive.
The transfer of property in a way that is not deemed fair may result in hurt feelings and damage to family relationships. Most people want to be “fair” to all members when their belongings are transferred, but fair may not mean equal.
Many have a tendency to avoid the sensitive issue of personal property transfer for a variety of reasons. Some may feel uncomfortable bringing up death or worry that others might think they are greedy. Some may think they have nothing of value or that no one will listen anyway. People may think that “this will not be a problem in my family,” or assume that family members will never disagree.
Here are some suggestions on how to talk about sensitive issues:
- Choose a time and place where there will be no distractions by telephone, television, radio or visitors.
- Practice what you might say before talking to family members who should be involved in the discussion.
- Use “I” messages to describe how you feel. Avoid “you” messages that focus on what you want other people to do, say or feel. (See “Positive Communication” article)
- Make a list of major concerns before contacting family members.
- To create a less threatening environment, share a meal together with the family.
If you’d like to know more about dealing with transferring property in your family, Extension offers two related programs: “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” and “Critical Conversations About Financing Long-Term Care.”
For more information, contact Sherron Hancock (HancockS@missouri.edu), Suzanne Zemelman (ZemelmanS@missouri.edu), Elizabeth Reinsch (ReinschE@missouri.edu), Sandra McKinnon (McKinnonS@missouri.edu) or any Life Times contributor for a referral.
Sherron Hancock, MS
Consumer & Family Economics Specialist