• U.S.

Families: Hey, You! That’s Mine!

8 minute read
Amy Dickinson

Things went fairly smoothly after Mattie Moye Hagerty died. The Greenville, N.C., widow left her estate and possessions to be divided equally among her three sons. Two sons, twins Roy and Guy, traveled to the family home to start to divide the family heirlooms. Their brother Harry was in touch by phone before making the trip south from Washington. The brothers asked Harry what he wanted from the house. He named a few things. Then his wife Helen remembered the footstool, the homely one with fringe running along the bottom.

“The footstool was something we had given to her years ago, and I just really wanted it back,” Helen explains. “And it wasn’t necessarily something we needed or would even use, but once people started claiming things, I started worrying about what our kids might get to inherit from that side of the family. And then it hit me–I realized that I was willing to fight over a footstool. It was pretty embarrassing.” Her husband let the footstool go to a niece.

It is hard enough to lose a parent–to snip the last invisible thread connecting a generation to the one preceding it. Now picture yourself standing in the house where you grew up, bickering with your siblings over the spoons in the junk drawer, sobbing over the Christmas ornaments or fighting over Daddy’s good-luck charm.

Therapists say ancient feuds between adult siblings can flare up like brush fires when their parents die. The game of who-gets-what can get out of hand when parents are no longer around to officiate and keep the peace. “Things left over from childhood get amplified,” says Michael Zentman, director of the postdoctoral program for marriage and family therapy at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. “Every time a family moves into another phase of life, it creates a lot of stress on family members, and for them to have to work on the nuts and bolts of dividing their possessions while they’re sad and grieving is a huge stress.”

Nikki DeShazo, now in her 20th year as a probate judge in Dallas, sees families land in her courtroom after squabbling so much over possessions that “it tears them apart.” DeShazo suggests that the size of the estate in question doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the intensity of the family battle. “The only difference between large and small estates is that a large estate has more funds to fuel the feud. In Texas, judges can order people into mediation, and I do, hoping they can work things out, because once you go to court, there’s a winner and a loser, and it’s permanent. That never goes away.”

In addition to the bad feelings such court battles engender, fighting over possessions gets expensive. Probate lawyers may charge from $150 to $350 an hour, making the process pricey when family members pay for hourly legal expertise to help them sort through, say, the tools in the garage. Judge DeShazo’s husband, probate lawyer and mediator Ed Smith, has handled thousands of estates in his 38-year career (though never in his wife’s courtroom). Smith says he has seen case after case in which people are willing to whittle away at their inheritance in order to try to win a fight over heirlooms. “When I mediate these estate cases, I draw a big circle on an easel for them. Then I tell them, ‘You’re playing with your own chips here. Your parents probably didn’t intend for your lawyers to be the single largest beneficiary of their estate.'”

Lawyers, estate planners and families eager to avoid the emotional and financial toll of a pitched battle over Mom’s old recipe tin and Dad’s fly-fishing equipment have come up with some ingenious ways of divvying up family possessions without going to court.

PICKING HEIRLOOMS OUT OF A HAT Each heir chooses one item that holds equal value for everyone in the group to put in the “pot.” If there are three heirs, for instance, there will be a total of three items. A group of heirlooms might include Mom’s old chifforobe, Dad’s tools and an old photo album–as long as the heirs agree that they would be satisfied with whichever item they end up with. The item is written on a slip of paper and tossed into a hat. Each person then chooses a slip of paper, “winning” the designated item–which can then be traded for another if someone else will swap. Heirs are free to say no to trades by agreeing in advance that they will accept whatever they have selected from the hat.

DRAWING LOTS Heirs gather items of relatively equal value–for example, all items in the home with an appraised value of $800 to $1,000. Then each heir draws a number out of a hat. The person drawing No. 1 gets first pick. Each heir in turn chooses something from the group. After the first round of picks, the routine starts again, with the person who drew No. 2 picking first, and so on. The total number of items has to be divisible by the number of heirs–for instance, if there are three heirs, the number of heirlooms should be a multiple of three.

MINI-AUCTION Any disputed items will be bid upon by family members, with the money raised going into the estate to be divided equally by everyone. The person who ends up buying the item will receive a portion of the bid price back when the money is divided among the group. Estate lawyers say auctions are a way for heirs to realize what they are willing to pay to secure a precious heirloom. The problem is that they do tend to reward those heirs who can afford to receive less cash.

PUBLIC AUCTION An appraiser and auctioneer can be paid by the estate to assess and sell any unwanted or disputed items at a public auction. Family members are welcome to bid along with the public for their heirlooms, with all profits going to the estate.

Knowing how often heirs fight over family possessions, estate lawyers frequently ask clients to write into a will a line intended to assist the family when the time comes to divide the effects, either suggesting a specific method of disbursing them or offering an airtight incentive to work things out amicably. “You can say in your will, ‘In case there is any conflict with dividing the personal property, it should be arbitrated by so-and-so’–the executor, for instance. You don’t have to get overly complicated, but you do need to try and anticipate how intense things might get,” says Denis Clifford, author of Plan Your Estate–Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Protect Your Loved Ones.

The Hagerty brothers used an informal bid system to divide their mother’s possessions. Roy Hagerty, who was executor of the estate, assigned different colored stickers to each brother. “First we went through the house, putting stickers on what we wanted. Anything with two or more stickers on it was bid on, with the winner’s price deducted from his portion of the small amount of money we each got from the estate,” he says. Although brother Harry didn’t score the fringed footstool for his wife and kids, he did go home with his father’s old leather chair, some antique furniture and jewelry to pass down to his six children and, best of all, photo albums of the Hagerty clan spanning the past century. “Knowing my children will eventually inherit these family things is important to me,” he says. Roy says the process of closing down his family home was “a difficult time–everyone was on edge, and it was emotionally charged,” but he and his brothers are glad they worked things out.

More and more, as elderly parents move into assisted-living facilities rather than remaining in the family home, possessions are being divided while parents are still in the picture. Albin and Rosemary Renauer’s mother Rosalene, of Plymouth, Mich., initiated the process with her six children during a period of several months before she and her husband Joseph made the move to assisted living two years ago. The parents took advantage of periodic visits from their children to give them things individually, and then asked them to put Post-it notes on other things they wanted. Son Albin had his sights set on his father’s old baseball glove. Rosemary coveted her old Humpty Dumpty night-light. “The fact that my mom and dad were around helped a lot,” Albin says. “We feel like we all get along pretty well, but who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t been there to keep us reasonable?”

Rosemary has seen an alternative method for settling family feuds: her husband’s grandfather got so sick of the bickering over family possessions that he piled his things on the front lawn and set fire to them. She says she’s grateful to her parents for handling their small estate so well. “Considering how there are six of us and we fought like cats and dogs as kids, it’s pretty remarkable, but my parents always said they didn’t want us to ever fight about money. They told us they wanted us to enjoy our inheritance while they were alive,” she says. “It looks like they got their wish.”

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