We see family disagreements over heirlooms on an almost daily basis. Tangible personal property – regardless of value — is what families tend to fight over most often because each item has sentimental value. The feuds happen during lifetime if, for instance, grandma gives a ring to one of her granddaughters and the others get miffed. Most often, though, conflicts erupt after a death when nothing has been written into the will or estate with instructions about “who gets what.”
When we are preparing a client’s estate plan, we provide them with a “tangible personal property memo” to be prepared and kept with their other estate planning documents. In the memo, the client will give direction on who is to receive specific items of their tangible personal property upon their death. In New York, unlike many other states, this type of memo is not binding. However, preparation of the memo forces the client to focus on what items might be more important to each of his or her heirs. We encourage the client to sit down with family members and talk to each of them and ask them, what if anything, each may want from the client’s collection of family heirlooms and why. Hopefully, when the client focuses on making these decisions, the appropriate item will go to the individual that will really appreciate its importance.
In one case where a grandmother did not specify to whom her antique engagement ring would go, the oldest granddaughter then reset it into a necklace. When her oldest grandson got engaged, he wanted to give the ring to his fiancé- but it was no longer an engagement ring! The grandson was quite upset that such a precious family heirloom had been destroyed without any of his siblings or cousins being consulted.
All this can be avoided with proper planning. By working with an experienced Trusts and Estates attorney and attorney who specializes in Estate Planning for Art, you can spare your family the kinds of angst over treasured art and collectibles by drawing up a “tangible personal property memo.” Don’t think your family members will magically ‘know’ your wishes and intentions. Don’t put hand-written notes inside a cherished teacup collection. Get ahead of it while you are enjoying the beautiful items you’ve collected, so that your heirs will one day inherit your treasures without a legal mess.