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A House Divided? Some Advice Before Dividing up Property

An almost universal duty for the executor (or trustee or court-appointed administrator) is to divvy up household property among several children. For this chore alone, you want somebody with the skills and patience of a referee. This may seem like a trivial issue; my experience tells me it is anything but. While this portion of an estate is likely to be relatively insignificant in financial terms, it has riven families, triggering heartache and resentment.

The potential divisiveness of candlesticks, china, and family photos can be easy to overlook. After all, your will probably directs that all your possessions are to be divided equally. So where’s the problem?

Let’s start with the word “equal.” Does it mean each beneficiary gets a batch of household goods of equal monetary value? Or that each gets the same number of things? Does a brace of candlesticks constitute one item or two? Is Mom’s jewelry to be distributed as a collection, or is each piece in it a separate item? Alternatively, should everything simply be auctioned off and the proceeds equally divided?

As a practical matter, it’s best to give the executor some discretion in these choices. But it is also wise to remind the child you’ve chosen as executor to apply her diplomatic skills to the job. Even when no sibling rivalry is apparent, convene a family powwow at the time you put your estate plan together. Get everybody on the same page to determine if any lurking issues need to be addressed while you are still around to do so.

From “AARP Crash Course in Estate Planning: The Essential Guide to Wills, Trusts and Your Personal Legacy,” by Michael T. Palermo, JD, CFP, 2005, pp. 112.

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