Keeping the Peace:
Dividing Property After a Loved One’s Passing
Important life events have a way bringing out the best and the worst in everyone. When a loved one dies, there are many loose ends to contend with, not least of which is what to do with that person’s physical belongings. After my mom died, it was up to my two brothers and myself to go through her things. I’ve been blessed to have two brothers that are very thoughtful and not at all greedy. They both do fairly well for themselves, but are not ones to show their wealth through the attainment of flashy, expensive purchases. So, when it came to figuring out how to divvy up my mother’s possessions, we all were able to come at it from a place of fairness and respect.
Sorting it all Out
We started the process by doing a thorough sorting of everything in my mom’s house to create separate piles for the items that we felt had value, the items that one or more of us wanted to keep, the items we figured could be donated to charity, and the items that would be thrown away. Each of us did the sorting in a different way and it showed a lot in terms of how well we were coping with the loss of our mother. My brother Dave preferred to move through the process quickly, identifying items for each pile without taking too much time to ponder on the item at hand. My other brother, Rich, while also moving quickly, would pause to make a comment here or there when discovering a piece of family history that we all shared. “Hey, check this out,” he’d say. “This is mom and dad’s marriage certificate from 1948!”
I, on the other hand, got quite mired down into the memories that came flooding back in those shoe boxes, files, and crates. I consider myself to be the family historian, because I’m fascinated by the sequence of events that led my relatives to the places where they lived and eventually died. So going through this treasure trove of information often got me sidetracked, doing things like reading postcards and letters, and trying to identify unknown faces in pictures from 50 years ago. My brothers had to constantly remind me to get back to it, which I reluctantly did.
Once we had sorted out all the items into their separate piles, we turned our attention to the pile of items that one or more of us had expressed a desire to keep. We’d heard horror stories of other families fighting over family heirlooms. But luckily that was not the case with us. We went through each of the items, starting with the items that had value. An example was our parent’s dining room table. Rich wanted that because he and his wife had just bought a new house and needed a table. Since neither myself or Dave needed a dining room table, we said he could have it. We then assigned a market value to the table and its companion sideboard. We did the same thing when Dave wanted the sofa and occasional chairs from the living room for his house. I was in need of a new bed and opted to ask for that. In the end, each of us had items of value that we wanted. We compared the totals and agreed to pay each other the difference in value.
For the other items each of us wanted that were more of a sentimental nature, we also did this on a comparative value system. I desperately wanted to keep the massive slide collection my dad had accumulated throughout the years. In return, Rich asked that he be allowed to keep my mother’s stand mixer and some of the good pots and pans she had. Dave needed some more drinking glasses and silverware, so he asked to keep those. We eventually settled on an equitable distribution of everything heirloom-oriented.
Self-Storage is an Option
If distant family members won’t be able make it back home prior to the time when items need to be removed from the house (for example, if the home has sold quickly), a good suggestion is to rent a large storage unit on a month to month basis and moving the items there. Then you can decide to either divide the items up at that time, or if that’s already been determined, to allow the family member some flexibility in arranging for the shipment of their chosen items.
Storage and the Law
Speaking of storage, if the deceased parent or other family member was storing items in a self-storage facility, there are state laws governing access to the contents of these storage units. Typically, a state will require you to present a copy of the death certificate as well a “certified letter of authority” (proof of estate executor status) to the self-storage manager prior to being given access to the unit. You’ll want to make sure that the storage unit continues to be paid for during the time you’re waiting for these documents to finalize. Otherwise the unit may be foreclosed upon.
Put it in Writing
If you feel like the distribution of your family keepsakes won’t go as smoothly as ours did, I suggest taking a poll of the family members to determine who desires what. Then you can create a “personal property memorandum,” a document that lists who gets what specific item. Then just refer to it in your will. This way, arguments over who gets grandma’s sewing machine won’t come down to who can lift it.
The Memories are the Important Thing
Going through the loss of a family member is hard enough on everyone in your family. By remembering to honor that person as you go through the process, you’ll find that personal property distribution can not only be amicable, but that it can be a way of sharing fond memories of your time with that person.
About the Author: Derek Hines
Internet Marketing Specialist
Derek is originally from the great state of Wisconsin (go Badgers), but is slowly becoming a Pacific Northwesterner. As part of the Internet Marketing team, he writes extensively on storage, moving and life for West Coast Self-Storage, based in Everett, Washington.