Dividing the stuff without dividing the family

I was speaking with a friend the other day, whose father had died almost 6 months ago.  The siblings were getting together this week and beginning the process of dividing the personal effects.

Carla Sutter
Carla Sutter, LSW/MISW

This task was causing great emotional dismay for two distinct reasons: the first was that this task was now highlighting the full absence of her father from her life, the second was the emotional turmoil it was bringing up between the siblings.  While the relationship between the daughters has been strong, it like many of our relationships is not without its problems.  The task that lay at hand was beginning to bring to light some of these issues as the division and determination of who claims title to which item is being decided.

It had already come out, that one of the daughters on her own had removed some of the items that over the years she had given as gifts to her parents.  Her thinking was that they started with her and now should be brought back into her fold.  My friend while understanding the logic in this was upset that it was done without her knowledge.  In addition, many of these items had become familiar to her over the years and held their own connections and reminded her of her father and his life.

During my work in hospice and as a Geriatric Care Manager, the issues surrounding the division of untitled property remains one of the most difficult emotional minefields.  The manner in which I work with families around these concerns probably in part is born from my own family’s handling of these matters.  My mother for as long as I can remember has talked to my sister and I about how important it is to make these decisions in a way that does not destroy the remaining relationship.  It has always been made clear that these decisions belong first and foremost to her and my father and that while we have a say, it is not the final one.  Property like money belongs to the holder, and is theirs to do with as they wish (barring of course mental illness and cognitive conditions that render the giver incompetent).  Adult children should see the passing down of this property as a gift and not believe that it is their inherent right to claim it.

All this would be easier if families were proactive in this and left behind a clearly written statement of their intentions.  For larger items, or those with higher monetary value, it may be easier for those left behind, if a note accompanied the item and explained the reason that it was designated in the manner it was.  For example, a family heirloom may be passed down to the adult child who has their own children so that the legacy can be continued.  An item may be willed to one sibling as it came from the family member for whom they were named.  A collection of books may be more apt to be handed down to the recipient who has a shared interest in the subject matter.

Many families have a tradition in how items are passed down.  Oldest siblings may be given first choice or jewelry may only be passed down through the women in the family despite the fact that a son may have fond memories of that piece being worn by his mother and would have liked it for his daughters.

Having a discussion about the manner in which non-titled property will be distributed prior to the act of distribution will almost always be preferable.  If a family has not made decisions prior to the death and now the total of the household has to be divided I have a suggestion for how this can be handled which I believe minimizes most of the family turmoil.

  1. Inventory the household and make a listing of all items.
  2. Determine ground rules.  These may include but may not be limited to the following:
    1. If you gave it as a gift you get it back and/or
    2. Only children and no spouses or significant others will actively participate in the division and/or
    3. If it is not claimed it is either given to charity or sold and the money is divided up between the heirs
  3. All participants get the list and by themselves rank the items in the order that they would hope to receive them. This ranking could be based on monetary value of the item, or personal affection for the item. The reason they have ranked it in this manner is of no importance to the other family members and does not, nor should not be shared.
  4. After all have ranked their lists (this could take a few hours, a few days or weeks and should be decided upon ahead of time) the group meets again and begins from the top and for each item asks where each person ranked it.  If Bob ranks it #3 and Billy #6 and Sue #15, then Bob would receive that item. This follows for all items. If one item has been ranked the same by family members, then it is put to the end and those duplicate rankings would be re-listed and re-ranked (this rarely if ever happens).

This process helps to eliminate what I call the EBay or Auction experience.  In an auction, the goal is to create a frenzy over an item and get the participants to begin to up the bidding based on a perceived belief that it has value (others want it) or for ego (I don’t want them to have it). With individuals doing this activity by themselves and not worrying about what the others have done, it can avoid many an argument and long held resentments.

One other suggestion.  Think for yourself what made your relationship with the deceased special.  What do you believe their emotional legacy to you has been.  For every item ask yourself how does this enhance or support this legacy.  Running this through your mind may put things in their proper perspective.

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