"More than 50 percent of the lawsuits we see are about items that have a total asset value of less than 10 percent of someone's estate," says John O. McManus, an estate attorney and founding principal of McManus & Associates in New York City. "The toughest part about family fights over a piece of jewelry or a painting is that it isn't about the value of the item, it's about what it means to loved ones."
McManus has even seen families battle over a mother's passport, an item with no intrinsic value.
"Fighting over personal property is the match to the tinderbox of emotions," says McManus. "Sometimes feuds start because of lingering resentments over who worked the hardest to take care of Mom or Dad when they were sick or even over who got the biggest scoop of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving every year."
In one case, McManus says, a woman had her sister arrested for stealing less than $100 of clothing from their deceased mother's apartment. In another case, brothers split in a lifelong feud over their father's watch.
"The worst legacy you can leave your kids is to leave them in a fight from which they won't recover," says McManus.
Start the Conversation
When some family members prefer to avoid discussing the distribution of property, McManus suggests that either generation can gently lay the groundwork for future conversations.
McManus suggests parents say they want to start the process of deciding who wants what in their house in the context of getting rid of some of their possessions.
"They can tell their kids they're trying to avoid conflict and that they don't think the kids are greedy, they just want to maintain family harmony," he says. "You'd be surprised what a sense of peace can come with starting these conversations."
5 Tips to Prevent Family Fights Over Heirlooms
1. Make an inventory.
You must make an inventory of your personal property because you never know who will be the first to arrive at your home after you pass away, says McManus.
"I emphasize the inventory because things can be stolen," says McManus. "Even if they're not stolen, it's sad how often ambulance drivers, police officers, neighbors, and kids get accused of stealing something from a deceased person's home."
Ask your kids if there's anything you've left off your inventory. Sometimes family members will feel deeply attached to an old train set or a set of engraved spoons that you've forgotten about.
Give a copy of your inventory to your attorney and make it accessible to others. "You want to provide a road map instead of a treasure map for your house," says McManus.
You can use inventory software such as Know Your Stuff from the Insurance Information Institute to start the process.
2. Share your list with family members.
After you've created an inventory, the next step is to allow your family members to decide what they want, says McManus.
"If you want to take some items off the table and designate them to a particular person, that's fine, but I recommend being careful about deciding on every item," says McManus. "If parents want harmony among their kids, they're better off serving as informal advisors rather than insisting on a particular division of property."
A family meeting provides an opportunity to discuss personal possessions openly, which can prevent siblings later saying that certain items belong to them because "She wanted me to have it" or "He knew I needed it more."
3. Appraise your property.
Even family members who say they aren't emotionally attached to any particular item may be upset once your personal possessions are distributed, especially if items vary in their value.
"We see a lot of households with one painting valued at $50,000 and everything else valued at $200 or less," says McManus. "If you can't equalize things between your kids in terms of personal property, you can equalize things with other financial assets. For instance, if one kid gets the painting, the other gets $50,000 off the top of the assets."
Another option is to have the kids agree to sell the painting at market value and divide the proceeds.
4. Set up a jury system.
"If anyone's disgruntled over specific items, then you can have involved relatives vote on what they think is appropriate," says McManus. "You can also have the appointed executor make the decisions or even do something like draw straws or roll dice until everything's gone."
The value of these options is that family members understand the formula is based on math, not emotion, he says.
5. Write a personal property memo.
McManus recommends keeping a personal property memo with your will and referencing it in the will. The memo should be as specific as possible when describing items and beneficiaries.
Whether you're concerned about your parents or you're getting older and are thinking about your kids, these simple planning steps can prevent a feud that can split a family for generations.
Michele Lerner is a contributing writer to The Motley Fool.