What’s Yours Is Mine Small items can mean big headaches for inheritors
By Ann Perry
Although you might assume that the biggest family disputes occur over an estate involving stocks and real estate, many fights erupt over who gets Mom’s or Dad’s personal property, such as jewelry, dishes, or family heirlooms.
“Personal possessions are a big, big issue,” says Shirley Kovar, a San Diego trust and estate lawyer who mediates court cases when inheritors are at an impasse.
She has seen an estate settlement grind to a halt while a family disputed who should have a single Christmas tree ornament.
Although such items might have little financial value, they have great personal worth to inheritors.
Unfortunately, they are often overlooked in estate planning. The reasons are many: The people leaving the items consider them insignificant compared with titled property such as stocks and real estate, they have no idea family members want them, or they know family members might fight over them and don’t know how to begin dividing them up.
But there is help in the form of a workbook called Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate? A Guide to Passing on Personal Possessions ($12.50, University of Minnesota Extension Service).
As the book points out, objects are important to us. They “have meaning and carry history.”
Just consider the yellow ceramic pie plate that gave the book its title. “This is no ordinary yellow pie plate,” a college student named Andrea writes. “It belonged to my great-grandmother, who spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her daughters baking pies. She gave it to my grandmother.
“The tradition of baking pies has continued through the generations, and the yellow pie plate is always on the table at family gatherings,” Andrea continues. “Who gets Grandma’s yellow pie plate when she dies? My mom does. Some of her favorite memories are of mornings in the kitchen baking rhubarb pies with Grandma. I hope that someday this yellow pie plate will be mine. It’s not just a piece of my past; it’s a piece of my living history.”
The Yellow Pie Plate workbook grew out of the needs of the families served by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, says Marlene S. Stum, Associate Professor of Family Social Science and the book’s lead author.
“People know they need to do this; they just don’t know how to get started,” Stum says. “People are just hungry for this information.”
Orders for the workbook, which is listed on Amazon.com, come in from across the country. A 13-minute, $30 video, originally designed for educators and available online at www.yellowpieplate.umn.edu , has been snapped up by families who show it at holiday gatherings to get everyone in the right frame of mind to talk.
While it would be best to make decisions about passing personal property along during periods of calm, Stum says that, unfortunately, it is often accomplished during times of crisis, such as a hospitalization or a death in the family.
The workbook offers step-by-step methods and proven strategies for walking family members through highly sensitive and emotional subjects, and guiding them to a conclusion.
There can be powerful messages in who gets what. But these messages can get distorted. Often, for siblings, the message is that Mom always loved another sibling best. That’s why the workbook encourages family members to communicate clearly and to define their values. Stum wonders how parents can be playing favorites, because it turns out they are often amazed by what personal items their children want from them. One of her friends told her, “I would never have guessed my son wants the toaster.”
To ensure that personal property gets to the proper recipient, it is common to draw up a list that describes individual items and the people to get them. In most states, the lists must be mentioned in the will to be legally valid. They should be dated and either in the owner’s handwriting or signed by the owner.
For more information, visit the Website at www.yellowpieplate.umn.edu , which offers articles on the subject, as well as related resources for families and a sample of the video. To order the workbook or the video, call (800) 876-8636. Ann Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .