United States: What About The "Stuff"? – Options For Distributing Tangible Personal Property From Estates Or Trusts

Last Updated: July 13 2015

During an estate or trust administration, it's easy to divide and distribute financial assets. Distributing tangible personal property (such as furniture, collections, artwork, jewelry, etc.) can be much harder.

Executors, trustees, and beneficiaries are usually very surprised by how little household goods and personal property are worth in an estate administration context.

Nonetheless, simply because property isn't economically valuable doesn't mean it might not have substantial emotional and sentimental value.

This makes it all the more important to be thoughtful about ways to thoughtfully avoid conflict, expense, or even litigation relating to personal property.

There are several ways to approach these issues.

The simplest approach (but in my experience, one that is not that common) may be to sell all of the property and divide the proceeds as directed in the estate plan.

Positives of this approach include transparency and fairness, because sale proceeds can be accounted for, and money can be divided easily.

Negatives include the typically low sale value of the property, and a lost opportunity to preserve its sentimental value within the family.

A far more common approach is to "work it out" among the family.

The executor or trustee might ask beneficiaries which items they want and see if a consensus appears. If a particular item is a focus for more than one family member, a bit of trading might occur, or (in extreme cases) those items might be sold.

This approach often sorts itself out with surprising speed and not that much fuss.

Its advantages include keeping items in the family that family members want.

Disadvantages may arise if one beneficiary is particularly pushy, and another is conflict-avoidant. In these instances, items may be distributed, but bad feelings among beneficiaries may simmer afterwards.

Families use a "draft pick" approach less frequently, but this offers the opportunity for increased fairness, and a structure that may reduce conflict.

In a "draft pick" approach, beneficiaries might draw straws to determine the order in which they will select items, and then continue "rounds" of selection until no beneficiary wants any item that hasn't yet been selected (these remaining items would probably be sold).

The positives of the "draft pick" approach include how easy it is for beneficiaries to understand, and how easy it is for executors and trustees to implement.

A potential negative is that (just like a sports draft), if there are a very few items that are much more desirable than the others, the draft results can be very lopsided – and this might leave beneficiaries grouchy.

An approach that is rather complicated (but may also be the most fair) is what I describe as Appraisal-Selection-Auction.

It works like this:

  • The household items are appraised (this is usually an estate administration procedural requirement anyway, especially when an estate is subject to estate or inheritance taxes.
  • Appraisal results are distributed to beneficiaries.
  • Beneficiaries might walk through the decedent's home or storage unit. Each beneficiary would have a batch of sticky flags in a different color, and flag any items he or she wants.
  • If only one beneficiary wanted a particular item, it would be distributed to that beneficiary.
  • The combined appraised value of all property distributed to a particular beneficiary would be deducted from the share of the estate's or trust's financial assets otherwise distributable to the beneficiary (this means, of course, that items aren't "free" for beneficiaries, which encourages them to choose thoughtfully).
  • If two or more beneficiaries want a particular item, the beneficiaries submit one sealed "best" bid for that item to the executor or trustee. The highest bid wins, and the bid amount is subtracted from the beneficiary's share of the estate or trust's financial assets.

As noted above, this approach produces transparent and fair results. It may produce lopsided or difficult outcomes when one beneficiary is much wealthier than another – making it easy for him or her to outbid the less wealthy beneficiary.

It's unusual for clients to have the "bandwidth" to closely consider the particular approach to distributing personal property that they want their executor or trustee to take in their future estate administration.

Instead, it usually falls to an executor or trustee to decide on the distribution approach.

If executor or trustee considers the particular items at issue, the personalities and financial situations of the beneficiaries, they may be able to use one of the approaches described above (or a blend of them) to sidestep conflict, disputes, and bad feelings.

In those instances, better outcomes result all around!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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