To many people, the family heirlooms--along with the history they represent--are more important than the money that they're leaving their heirs. Fights over family heirlooms from a parent's estate can destroy family bonds. It can also result in a judge ordering the items in question sold, and the money simply divided between your heirs as the only way to resolve the legal arguing. If you're planning your estate, there are steps you can take to help prevent these kinds of problems.
Don't Rely On Everyone's Memories
It's not uncommon for people who are aging to discuss with family members who they want to have the china, the gun collection, the antique German silver, and so on. Don't rely on the idea that your children or executor will remember (or agree on) who you wanted to have your diamond engagement ring, just because you thought you made it clear.
Have your attorney include a personal property memorandum reference in your will. You can use it to leave personal items and heirlooms to your heirs, and edits can be made without the need to re-sign the will.
When you list an item in the personal property memo, be as specific as possible with your description. Don't say "my favorite diamond ring" and assume that everyone will know which diamond ring you meant. If possible, include photos.
Consider Using A Life Estate
A life estate allows your surviving spouse to enjoy the possession of an asset for the rest of his or her life. Once your spouse dies, the item passes back into your estate and forward to your heirs.
A life estate is especially useful in situations where there is a second marriage, and children from the first marriage are concerned that some piece of tangible property might end up being sold or given to a step-sibling. For example, you can use a life estate to reassure your children that their grandmother's silver tea set isn't going to end up in the hands of a step-sibling, should you die before your spouse. At the same time, your spouse won't have face a demand that he or she box the silver up and turn it over to the executor of your will, days after your death.
Try To Divide Your Property As Fairly As Possible
Ideally, dividing your assets between your heirs is something that you can do fairly and equally, but "fair" and "equal" aren't always the same thing.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are contemplating leaving one of your heirs an object or collection that has significant monetary value, you should realize ahead of time that you are setting the stage for a conflict.
You may have a perfectly good reason for doing so. If one of your children shares your love for old coins, and the rest don't, it makes sense that you'd want to pass your collection on--intact--to the child that will see it as something worth more than monetary value.
However, your other children may see it as favoritism on your part, or just consider it unfair that you left their sibling something that he or she could sell for a lot of money.
If you can, consider balancing the scales a little, and adjusting the remainder of your estate to reflect the lump-sum value of the personal article you left to the one child.
Start by finding out the fair market value of the item. For example, have the coin collection appraised. If the total collection is worth $10,000, consider giving each of your other children something else of equal value or a larger percentage of your remaining estate. That can help avoid both hurt feelings and conflicts once you're gone.
Communicate With Your Heirs And Your Attorney
If you are so inclined, and if you think it would benefit your heirs in the long-run, knowing their personalities, you may want to address the issue of who is to get what before you die.
The best way to handle the situation is to do it with everyone present at the same time. That way no one is left wondering if a brother or sister was secretly standing at your elbow, pushing you to leave them a treasured family item, while you were writing out your will. It also gives everyone a chance to speak up--while you are still alive--to ask for changes or to discuss your reasons with you.
If you don't want to have an open discussion about your will with your heirs, make certain that your probate attorney understands your reasons for the way you want any important or expensive heirlooms handled. If there is a family fight after you die, your attorney is the one who has to explain your decisions to the court.
When planning your estate, remember that your will is essentially a set of instructions for the probate judge that tells him or her how you want your assets divided. You want to make sure that the judge has enough information to clearly understand your wishes, so that he or she can enforce them. Take the time to get a detailed will done through a good probate attorney who understands that even small personal items can become big headaches, if they become part of a family feud after your death.