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Feb. 20, 2020, 12:19 p.m. EST

Here’s one way to divide up items from a family estate that will keep everyone happy

A 5-step process for distributing tangibles that everyone thought was fair

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By Harry S. Margolis

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  • 1. Sue and Bruce circulated the inventory to all four siblings and asked each to indicate which items they were interested in. This resulted in dividing the items into three groups: (a) those in which no one had any interest; (b) those in which only one person had an interest and (c) those in which two or more were interested. The ones where no one had an interest were set aside to be sold or given away. Those who were fortunate to be the only siblings wanting certain items got them.

  • 2. Then, Sue and Bruce prepared several lists of items in which more than one sibling expressed an interest. Each received a list of those. They were not given information on items in which they weren’t interested; this was one of two ways the system was not transparent.

  • 3. Each sibling was then provided with 500 virtual poker chips which he or she could use to bid for contested items. However, before the deadline for bidding, the siblings could talk with one another about their intentions. It turned out that many had bid for several similar items — such as family pictures, bookcases and oriental rugs — when they really only wanted one from each category. So, they agreed among themselves who would receive each one without wasting a lot of chips. Such consultation also avoided two people bidding a lot of tokens for a particular item and no one bidding on another similar one.

  • 4. After the bids were in, Sue and Bruce let everyone know what they had won, without revealing the bids. So, this was not like a silent auction or eBay where bidders can see what others are bidding and readjust their bids up to the deadline. This was the second aspect of the system that was not transparent.

  • 5. Finally, once all the allocations were determined, Sue and Bruce added up the monetary value of all the items and readjusted the estate monetary distributions to ensure that everyone came out at the same place financially. The most valuable items were a 1919 Steinway drawing room grand piano valued at $25,000; a 2005 Toyota Camry valued at $4,500 and several oriental rugs together valued at $13,975. The recipients of these, in effect, had to pay their siblings something for them, with a total of $17,500 trading hands.

This was a time-consuming process, taking about three months. “It’s a good thing I’m retired,” Sue said, “and that I have a tolerance for detail and my siblings’ trust, which has turned out at certain moments to be very important.”

How did it work out?

The siblings felt their system was very fair and the process, unlike what I’ve seen in some other family estates, not only relieved tensions, it brought Mary Jane’s sons and daughters closer together. The adult heirs were also brought closer by spending time together packing items and getting Oma’s condo ready for sale.

Said Martha: “Our parents always encouraged us to treat each other well and not be horrible.”

Harry S. Margolis practices estate, special needs and elder law planning in Boston, answers consumer estate planning questions at the  AskHarry.info site and is author of Get Your Ducks in a Row: The Baby Boomers Guide to Estate Planning.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org , © 2020 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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