I'm preparing my will and am looking for suggestions about the best way to leave my personal belongs to my heirs. I don't have children, but have nieces and nephews I have been close to over the years. I know of a few items that I want to give to them individually, but I'm at wits end about the distribution of the rest of my estate. I don't want anyone to be upset or feel that I didn't care as much for them as another relative. I'm hoping other boomers can give me advice about how they distributed their estate among their children or other relatives. Also, I have a few items and collections that are quite valuable, any suggestions about what to do with them.
I might have a solution for you to divide your heirlooms and not your heirs. If your will says, your furniture, china and other household contents will be “left to my nieces and nephews equally” you won’t be there to see it, but many a family feud has started over that phrase. Even the most amicable adult children can turn acrimonious when trying to figure out who gets the items fraught with sentimental meaning and sometimes monetary value. Animosities can also flare when you bequeath items without providing reasons for your decisions – for instance, if your nephew, who got the nut bowl, doesn’t understand why you left the silver service to your niece. Sometimes who gets these things can become signs of how much you cared about them. A misunderstanding from childhood could surface over why one heir received a treasured lamp over another. You should bring them to the decision-making table, avoid hurt feelings and ensure that they actually get what they want. You can allow them to choose objects with your oversight, or you can elicit their opinions and then make the decision on your own. A valuable piece can make everyone but the receiver let down, so let everyone know why a certain niece or nephew is getting it.
According to a poll conducted for Allianz Life Insurance Company, only 31% of those ages 65 or older have discussed inheritance issues with their kids. Experts say families who avoid legacy issues miss an opportunity to discuss family values and traditions. It may also increase the chance of squabbles. Heirs are much more likely to fight about fulfilling last wishes and distributing of personal possessions than about money. Depending on how well your nieces and nephews get along; you can bring all the members together for a discussion or speak separately to each one. A good way to start is to ask them for wish lists along with reasons why they want particular items. A similar method is to ask them to place colored stickers or tags on favorite items then keep track in a notebook. One popular method of distribution is the round robin. You can flip a coin to decide the order in which heirs get to select items. Some families conduct auctions, in which each heir is given the same amount of play money to spend on the possessions they want.
It’s a good idea to separate the sentimental items that have little financial worth from those with substantial monetary value. Ask your heirs if there are particular pieces of treasured furnishings or jewelry that they might want, and then either conduct a rotation or decide yourself who should get what. You may want to have some expensive pieces appraised first so that everyone can feel they were treated fairly. But being fair doesn’t always mean being equal. You may want to allow them to take back anything in the estate that they gave you. Also, you could decide to reward a child who helped you financially or to provide a special gift to a caregiver. But you can avoid hurt feelings if you explain your reasons to other heirs. You don’t want your children making assumptions about why you made these decisions.
Once you’ve made your decisions on how to dispose of your possessions, you can pass on some of them as gifts before you die. If you no longer need your china or a necklace, giving items away on birthdays or anniversaries can be a meaningful experience for the entire family. For the items that you will give away after your death, write a letter describing who gets what and then refer to the letter in your will. That enables you to change the list without having to change the will each time. However, such a letter is morally – not legally – binding because the bequests are not listed in the will. You might also want to make a video that will identify the items, so there will be no confusion over which ring or painting you’re assigning.
Families who can’t resolve their differences should seek the help of a facilitator. Such a neutral outsider could help a family, especially one with substantial wealth, work out disagreements over inheritances and other money issues. Make sure the facilitator has experience in the fields of social work, counseling or mental health. By talking to your nieces and nephews about the symbols of family memories, you can leave a legacy that money can’t buy. And you might just ensure that they get along with each other when you’re gone.
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