Distributing Personal Effects (Part 3 of 3)

Finding Joy Amidst Grief

Chris Eckrich
Chris Eckrich

When a parent dies, family members each experience a unique set of memories, thoughts, and emotions around the parent who has just passed.  Ideally, extensive amounts of time would be allowed to pass before the adult children need to gather and distribute the personal effects of the deceased parent.

Many families anguish over how they will distribute Mom’s or Dad’s personal effects and how each sibling will respond in the matter.  Readers who have read the previous two blogs in this three part series will know that process comes before distribution.   In other words, the sibling group needs to be clear about the process that will be used to distribute items before items begin being passed out.

Of course, senior generation members often identify specific items in their estate plans that are to be distributed to specific persons.  These items should be distributed as soon as appropriate and no input is needed by the sibling group.  However, there often remain many items including pictures, vases, or tables that have significant emotional attachment by one or more of the siblings.  The best processes seek to allow each person to meet their emotional needs and also balance economic value in the distribution of items.  For parents with high quantities of expensive items, such as larger collections, the siblings may consider whether keeping a collection intact is an option or whether the items will be distributed out individually.  Additionally, consideration should be given as to what percentage of collections will be kept in family hands and what will be sold to either distribute as cash on an equal basis, or help pay taxes or process the estate.

Then we come down to the pictures, paintings, tables and don’t forget Mom’s or Dad’s jewelry.  It is not always clear how the family will navigate distributing these effects without conflicts emerging.  Some approaches that have been used by families (some use multiple approaches) include:

  • Drawing numbers out of a hat and then use a rotating system based on the number one draws.
  • Going through items together and siblings share what items meant to them personally when there is a sentimental attachment.  This allows fond memory sharing amongst the group and teaches the group something about the siblings that they will spend the rest of their lives with.
  • Going through one room at a time and distributing the items as smaller groupings rather than everything all at once.
  • Having all items appraised and then distributing in some order based on each person ending up with the approximate same value.
  • Sharing one or more items of meaning to each of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
  • Distributing those items of greatest meaning and then selling remaining items and using proceeds to make a donation or fund a scholarship in the parent’s name.

A key question will be determining the role of spouses in the distribution of effects.  As siblings may have various ideas about this, it will be important for the sibling group to first agree on the role of spouses before spouses become involved in the process, if this is possible.   Another factor is timing.  Families do well to allow adequate time to grieve before engaging in the distribution of effects.  If a family leader is the executor of the estate they will do well to assess each family member to determine readiness for this activity, which may be emotional and particularly difficult for some.

We know of families who use the opportunity to share life stories of the loved parent, especially happy or funny stories.  This is fitting when the stories can unify the group.  Still, personal effects need to be distributed, sold or given away.  A process that is seen as fair will increase the odds that future family relationships are built on support and not eroded by jealousies.

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