Dividing Family Possessions: A Perilous Process

My husband comes from a large, loving, boisterous family. Growing up they were anything but wealthy; it was the kind of household where there was always food on the table but seldom enough for seconds. Their house was small and modest. 

As time passed, the kids grew up and moved away and married. Their father died and the time came when their mother realized the house was too much to maintain. Plans were made for her to move into an apartment. She obviously could not take all the furniture and keepsakes with her, and so the discussions about dividing them among the kids began. 

Because it was a small house, there should not have been much divide, but there was. There were family pictures on the wall, curios on the cabinets and inside drawers, and an attic full of school artwork, old newspaper clippings, diplomas, and trophies. There were matching chairs and mismatched bedroom furniture. Some of it came from great- grandparents and some of it came from garage sales. All of it had memories attached.

My husband made the first move. One day when he was at the house, he casually removed a framed family picture from the wall, scribbled his name on the back, and then replaced it. Unfortunately, it was too good a joke not to share. A week later he told one of his siblings, who promptly went to the house, pulled down the picture, crossed out my husband’s name and wrote her own. For good measure she wrote her name on the back of two more pictures. Soon no sibling was visiting the house without a Sharpie, and the back of every picture was black with crossed-out names. 

My beleaguered mother-in-law finally called a family meeting of the kids. When the group was seated, she asked each of them to choose one item they really wanted. The first chose the dining room sideboard, the next wanted the inherited crystal water pitcher and so on down the line until it finally reached the last, my husband. Looking pious, he said “I want only one thing – your prayer book.” There was a moment of silence, then his mother teared up at the thoughtfulness of his request and his siblings were upset that they had not thought of it first. My husband basked in their accolades, which lasted only until he leaned over and whispered to his sister Betsey: “I’ll sell it to you.”

Division of Property Tips

Family possessions, known in legal jargon as “tangible personal property,” can be difficult to divide.  When the division is handled poorly, old family rivalries are resurrected, feelings are hurt, and relationships irreparably damaged. When it is handled well, family members believe they have been treated fairly and have received those keepsakes they truly value.

Here are a few tips on handling property division well. 

  • Know what is being divided. If there are a lot of items, then you may need to make a spreadsheet, take pictures of each item, or get appraisals. 
  • The process should involve only the direct heirs. No in-laws or children allowed. 
  • Be fair. Each heir gets a turn to choose an item. 
  • Decide in advance who will be responsible for packing, shipping, and insurance.
  • If necessary, have the process run by a third party.

Happily, the division for my husband’s family went well. And the prayerbook? His mother promptly went out and bought 5 more prayerbooks – 1 for each child – and alternated using them until the day she died. 

Virginia Hammerle is president of  Hammerle Finley Law Firm. She is an Accredited Estate Planner, has been Board Certified in Civil Trial Law for 25 years, and recognized as a Super Lawyer for the past 10 years. She blogs regularly on senior issues and the law and has a monthly newsletter. Contact at legaltalktexas@hammerle.com.