Personal property and estate planning

Q: What is the best way to handle personal property in a will? Should the property be itemized? Is there an easier way to handle it?

A: Years ago, listing personal property in the will was fairly common. However, since I have been practicing law, the listing of items in the will has become less and less common.

Now, I’m not saying it never happens, it’s just that we are using different planning techniques and only itemize under certain circumstances. For example, I have completed a number of estate plans that involve vintage cars. In those cases, I have listed the car and the recipient specifically in the will.

The problem that I have with listing personal property in the will is people tend to change their minds. When that happens, a codicil to the will or an altogether new will needs to be executed. That means a visit to the attorney’s office and additional fees. Let’s face it; nobody wants to pay the attorney twice.

Another problem occurs when people give away the property during their lifetimes. Now, the simple fact that the property that was listed in the will was given away doesn’t necessarily mean there will be problems, but it could. For example, did grandma really give away her wedding ring or did someone just put it into their pocket? It may take a judge to decide that.

Remember folks, it’s easier to avoid a problem than to solve it later — and usually cheaper too.

What I prefer to do is reference a personal property distribution letter in the will. I then give my clients a stack of blank letters and instructions on how to execute them.

The benefits of handling personal property this way is clients can change their minds or update the distribution list whenever they want to without having to write me a check. It’s that last part that clients like the best.

In addition to referencing the personal property distribution letter, I add a provision that basically says that if the beneficiaries can’t agree on the distribution of the remaining personal property within five months following death, the personal representative should sell the property and split the cash. The thought of someone else sitting in grandma’s rocking chair is usually enough to get the family to act reasonably.

Fortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of fights over personal property in the 20-plus years I’ve been an attorney. However, the times I have seen fights, they’ve been ugly.

Just a little planning can go a long way in avoiding the fights.

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