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Who gets grandpa’s tools?

November 2008

It can be the little things in an estate that cause the biggest disagreements. Make a plan to distribute these treasures before you die.

If you are looking for a new winter project that will make huge deposits into your family’s emotional bank account, read on. Many families seeking to settle the estate of loved ones are tangled up in the emotion around the “non-titled property,” what Canadians call “personal effects.”

The University of Minnesota extension service developed a program called “Who gets grandma’s yellow pie plate?” which gives these reasons why giving away the estate stuff is so difficult:

  • Avoidance of the issue. This is highly sensitive decision-making.
  • Different family perceptions of what is “fair.”
  • Lack of communication and unwritten family rules. “We don’t talk about asking for stuff.”
  • Family history and unresolved conflicts. “Remember what your aunt did last time!”
  • Decisions are not made ahead of death, they wait until a crisis hits.

Giving away grandpa’s tools is difficult because he likely didn’t write down a list of whom he would like his things to go to. There is no title or property ownership document of his lathe, screwdrivers, or toolbox. Sentimental meanings attached to the tools make decisions more emotional. When you start distributing personal property you are in the grieving process of saying “goodbye” to a loved one connected to the memories of the effects. Who teaches you which distribution methods work best? What are the consequences of doing nothing?

Tips to make your property distribution go more smoothly

  1. Go through old papers and discard outdated items.
  2. Sell items or gift them to loved ones before you expire.
  3. Talk to friends about what distribution methods worked well for them.
  4. Make an appointment with family at a specific time other than family celebrations to discuss the issue of giving away your treasures.
  5. Take charge now. The funeral is “a piece of cake compared to cleaning out the house, shed, and closing the door for the last time,” says Sharon Kickertz-Gerbig.

Your goals
Grandma and grandpa, what are your goals for letting go of your treasures and stuff?

  • To celebrate the stories and memories that go with the treasure.
  • To improve family relationships by sharing your intent regarding the distribution.
  • To be fair to all involved, using a rotating turn system to choose what items family members or friends would like to inherit.
  • To preserve memories by writing a story that goes along with the items gifted.
  • To contribute to society by donating items to a local archive or museum for display.

What not to do
I found a note handwritten by a loved one that said “distribute my personal effects evenly among the family in an amicable fashion.” That is an impossible task. What I did do is visit many of my cousins and let them choose one or two things that would remind them of the person deceased. They were pleased that their memory of their loved ones was respected.

Individuals and heirs are likely to feel the outcome are “fair” if they have been involved in the decision of distribution or the process. Making the decision before death is the best way when the owner decides who receives property. Special memories and stories can be shared.

My mom gave me a beautiful fur coat that she had purchased by selling a truckload of wheat. She bought the coat with my sister, who pre-deceased her, and she was pleased that I would make good use of the gift. When folks compliment me on my coat, I am pleased to say that it was a thoughtful gift from my mom, before she died. We all have heard the horror stories about the family Bible being found in the garbage, or personal effects strewn across the lawn when a loved one dies and someone ravages the estate effects. When decisions are made after death or a crisis, they may not accurately reflect the owner’s wishes. Misunderstanding among heirs can be averted if you list “who gets what and why…and attach that to your will.”

Some folks have seen treasures they wanted go up for public auction. Your family might want to break the silence and open up the discussion while grandpa is still able to talk about where he wants his tools to go. Some families have used equal piles of Monopoly money to “pretend purchase” the items of the estate they want. One family simply took turns choosing what was important to them, and they had a great deal of respect for each other to be able to do this. Another family put a dollar value on the items to be distributed and then matched dollar values as closely as possible. Inheritance is considered “unfair” when moral and ethical standards are not followed. For example, pieces of antique tools “disappear” from grandpa’s shed while he is in hospital. Or siblings help themselves to the yard site inventory that was to go “lock, stock, and barrel” to the new family owner.

All of the immediate family members should have a “voice in the decisions of distribution.” You need to also consider the in-laws, and grandchildren, and special friends.

Use a simple paper with a description of the item, the story behind the item, and why the item is special to you. The giver and the heirs can each do this to determine who is the best emotional match for the treasure to be passed on to the next generation. What special items does your parent have that you hope they will pass on or transfer to you? Why is that item special to you?

As the giver, pass on the story. List the special item, describe it, and state who you would like it to go to, and why. Sign the paper, and date it.

Masking tape on items can be lifted and fall off. Having a complete list attached to your will, or in the hands of your trusted executor may be a better idea. I think the best way to share your treasures is to give them to your heirs and friends before you die.

If you are 50 years old or older, this article will resonate with you because you have likely already had to deal with someone else’s stuff. People in their 50s typically want a simpler lifestyle and don’t need or want more stuff. People in their 80s are the children of the depression and they like the security of having stuff. So there is lots of talking, story-telling, and sharing to do this winter.

Let me know what distribution system has worked well for your family. We all need to learn from each other so that folks don’t want to kill each other with grandpa’s favorite hammer.

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