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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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February 9, 2001: Avoiding Conflict over Distribution of your Possessions

Q: I don't want the kids to fight so I am just going to give them everything now.

A: You don't have to give away your things. Keep them and enjoy. A few simple suggestions might help.

Often people will orally share with children which items should go to whom or put labels on various things showing the names of the intended recipients. Unfortunately, neither approach is legally binding and often adds to the tension that might already exist among beneficiaries. Two different people may think that you told him or her that he or she was to receive a certain thing. Or the others might not believe the intended recipient. Often labels are believed to have been removed or even "manufactured" after-the-fact. Thus, although many folks use either or both approaches, don't follow suit.

You could list the items in your Will, but that could be cumbersome, especially later if you change your mind and then need to do a Codicil.

A simple solution is to have a Will with a clause permitting you to make a list of such bequests. Then on a separate, unattached piece of paper, you can list the items and to whom they are supposed to go. Although you can compose the list on a typewriter or the computer, the final product should be in your handwriting (to show that it truly represents your wishes), signed, and dated. Then if you change your list, just make sure changes are in your handwriting, signed, and dated. The list does not have to be witnessed, or notarized, or even kept with your Will (but it should contain references to connect it back to the Article in the Will permitting you to make such a list).

And then in your Will provide for a way of dividing up your other things that were not listed maybe something as simple as drawing straws and then having each beneficiary select an item when it becomes his or her turn. By providing a neutral mechanism such as this, the opportunity for fights and misunderstanding has been removed, for the most part.

Thus, if you do these two simple things when you are setting up your Will, then you take away the opportunity for your children to either get mad at each other or to pull a fast one on the others.

Finally, if you are concerned about someone coming in and "looting" your house before the others can return, make a list of the more important items that should be present or have pictures taken showing the contents of something like a room or a cabinet.

And remember, it is rare that your kids want to have your things while you're alive in fact, most children really do not want to be put in the position of telling you what they would want. So don't embarrass them or put them "on the spot." When you are ready, just make the decision yourself because after all, it is not important who may want to inherit what; it is important to whom you want something to go.

But also remember that the bottom line is to select a personal representative who will "hold the line" and be sure that the estate is settled in a fair and orderly manner, especially when disposing of your personal things.

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