An issue that often arises in both family law and estate law contexts is what to do with a personal property upon the demise of a relationship or the death of the owner.  Tangible items, whether valuable in a monetary sense or not, often have emotional value and can often become symbols of greater family conflicts.

When a relationship ends, it is often necessary for the parties to divide their personal possessions.  Most of the time people can agree that each person should take their own items, but joint items can be trickier.  Who should take the fancy camping equipment that was purchased together?  What about the dog?  Wedding gifts?

Sometimes people become invested in keeping a particular item because of what it symbolizes to them.  Other times people want to keep a particular item because they know the other person wants it and they don’t want them to have it or even for the counter-intuitive reason of keeping the conflict going with the other person as a way of continuing the relationship.

In family law contexts it is important for people to focus on what is really important to them, why it is important to them, and what items they really want to plant their flag over.

In estate cases where someone has died, family arguments may arise over the personal items.  Unlike financial accounts which are likely to be clearly distributed by a will or intestate laws, personal possessions may not be addressed clearly or perhaps high-monetary value items are addressed, but keepsakes and less expensive items are not.

In the emotional wake of a death, relatives and friends may conflict over what they are “entitled to” or what the deceased person “wanted them to have.”  Items can become a tangible sign of the deceased person, their love, and the relationship they had with those left behind.

In estate situations, pre-planning on the part of the individual can be helpful.  Gifting items while you are alive, leaving a list of items designated to certain people, or even communicating clearly in advance who should get what, can help prevent or reduce conflicts later.  If clear instructions are not left behind, people can often reduce conflicts by increased communication about why they want certain items and even brainstorming ways to balance everyone’s legitimate needs to be heard and the grief being suffered.

1 Comment

Max Jones · April 20, 2017 at 10:29 am

My grandmother recently died, and we had one of the cases you talked about involving family arguments. I really like the idea of estate planning for this reason, because nobody wants to fight with family. I’m going to make sure my parents work on estate planning sooner than later so my siblings don’t fight about the same things in the future.

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