How to leave items of sentimental value to your heirs

Often, the issue that causes the most hard feelings among family members after a death isn’t how much money everyone received in the will, but who should get the plate on which Grandma served her famous Thanksgiving pie year after year.

Most people don’t think much about items of sentimental value when they do their estate planning. But they should, because doing so can avoid a lot of awkward situations.

For instance, you might plan to leave everything to your children in equal shares, but what about the piece of jewelry that you always promised to your eldest daughter, or the antique vase your cousin loved that no one else in the family liked? Or what if you have a valuable item such as a piano that can’t be divided equally?

It’s definitely a good idea to make provisions for items such as these in your will.

In most (but not all) states, you can write a “personal property memorandum” that’s separate from your will and that covers how personal items will be distributed. It’s valid as long as your will specifically refers to it, and an advantage is that you can change it yourself whenever you want without having to revise the entire will.

Usually, the memorandum can cover items such as furniture, artwork, jewelry, and so on. Some states let you include cars, but you can’t use it for financial instruments such as bank accounts or stocks and bonds.

What happens if someone dies and doesn’t make any plan for personal property, and the children or other heirs can’t agree on how to divide it? Some families have come up with creative solutions.

For instance, they might assemble all the personal items and take turns picking one item each. Or each child might be given an equal amount of Monopoly money, which they can use to “bid” for each item at an auction.

In some cases where the children simply couldn’t agree, the executor or trustee has ended up selling all the items and dividing the cash.

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