Suggestions needed for avoiding family schism regarding wills/property
February 6, 2017 6:39 AM   Subscribe

My elderly step-father has decided it's time for us to start laying claim to all the items in his house that we might want after he passes. I am looking for any guidance on how to help this happen without anyone getting their feelings hurt and/or thinking they are getting screwed over. How do we do this and take into account items that have sentimental value vs monetary value? Please share any advice you might have or point me to resources you might know of that address this situation.

Things are complicated by the fact that my step-father's children never lived in the house he shared with my mother. (They were married 35 years and she died 4 years ago). My younger siblings grew up in that house and spend a lot of time now taking care of my step-father. His own kids ... not so much. This alone has created alot of tension recently, but my step-father seems oblivious to it. I personally wish I could avoid the whole thing because I just don't want anymore stuff. I would very much like this process to not get ugly. Are there any resources for how to do this? I think we could avoid lots of hurt feelings if everyone feels it's "fair". Pretty sure my step-dad's will is designed to divide his money equally between all of us. He is not currently ill or at death's door. But he seems adamant that this be done soon.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"Dad, here are the brochures of three estate sales firms. Pick one. They will take literally every object you own when you die and sell it. We can all attend that sale, but nothing will be held in reserve for family."

If Stu wants that 1914 Encyclopedia Britannica, he gets to bid against regular people who don't care that your step-father used to read out loud to him about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they just know that they saw one like it on Antiques Roadshow that one time.
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on February 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think step-father should be encouraged to make his own decisions on this, write them down, and lock them up with a lawyer. It seems to me there is a high likelihood of people feeling that basically any division is unfair, so why pit the whole family against each other in the process? If step-dad wants input on what people want, maybe everyone could list their top 5 or top 10 (or whatever) things they want with some explanation of why, and he could consider that in making his own decisions. Basically, someone has to take the heat for resolving conflicting claims/desires - who better than the guy who owns the stuff and who won't be on the scene when the decisions are announced?
posted by Mid at 7:29 AM on February 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

Take a photo (with a nice background and good lighting) and create a nice slideshow to be shared with everyone.

And then - just as you've said about your own feelings about it -- just don't care whose hands each item ends up in. There's no reason for you to manage this on behalf of the family. (Also -- if you try to manage it on behalf of the family, everyone will end up mad at you.)

There's no need for you to dread that the process will "get ugly" or that there will be "hurt feelings". Leave yourself out of it. People's feelings may not get hurt at all, and people might think it's worth having hurt feelings. Bonus: some of them might take their cues from you and decide that they also do not need more stuff and prefer to stay out of it.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:50 AM on February 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

After my parents' deaths my siblings (4 total, no step-family complications) took turns choosing items they wanted. There was a huge amount and variety of stuff so we did divide some of it up into sub-lots of similar things to alternate choices on (jewelry, things with a deep family history, household items, etc.). Anyone could bow out of the rotation when there was nothing more in any given category they were interested in. We were able to be on-site together when doing this and it was post-funeral, but in your case, perhaps your step-father could accomplish something similar using photos and email/text turn-taking? If he has many years left, realize that a lot of the household items may very well be gone or replaced, so probably shouldn't even be included in this pre-death divvying-up.

Disparity in value could be a cause for contention if there are only a few high-end items. Including these in the estate rather than the turn-taking or having the sib-selector pay an appraised value may be the only way to keep tensions down.
posted by ClingClang at 8:13 AM on February 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

"Dad, here are the brochures of three estate sales firms. Pick one. They will take literally every object you own when you die and sell it. We can all attend that sale, but nothing will be held in reserve for family."

If Stu wants that 1914 Encyclopedia Britannica, he gets to bid against regular people who don't care that your step-father used to read out loud to him about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they just know that they saw one like it on Antiques Roadshow that one time.

I feel like this is a recipe for sadness if the heirs have different levels of wealth/financial security - like, I am one of three sisters. We have wildly different household incomes and expenses, like probably one of us makes $X with expenses of $X, another makes $5X with expenses of $3X, and the third $10X with expenses of $7X. The richest sister could comfortably outbid the poorest sister for anything, if she cared to.

What about assigning an arbitrary amount of fake/monopoly money to each heir, and letting them bid with that? Everyone starts out with the same amount of "money," and if Graybstin wants to spend all his money on that one Hummel figurine while Eberlee and Fraynkdyn get into a bidding war over the dining room set, that's OK, they're deciding what's most important to them.
posted by mskyle at 9:17 AM on February 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

When my two brothers and I had to split our father's items after he died, this is what we did:
  • Made an inventory of everything.
  • All three of us listed the things we wanted.
  • We created lists of things that:
    • Only one person wanted.
    • Brothers 1 & 2 wanted.
    • Brothers 1 & 3 wanted.
    • Brothers 2 & 3 wanted.
    • Brothers 1 & 2 & 3 wanted.
  • Anything that only one of us wanted, got it.
  • On the lists where two of us wanted the items, we flipped a coin on who got to chose first, and alternated our selections.
  • For the list of items that all three of us wanted, we drew numbers out of had to choose the order of selection.
This worked for us as we all get along pretty well with minimal conflicts. It didn't directly take account of the monetary value of things, although in most cases sentimental values were more important. None of us was concerned about taking advantage of each other and we were financially in all about the same place. And there were a couple large items (an antique chest and a pinball machine) that defaulted to me since I was the only one who lived locally.

In your case, it seems your step-father wants decisions made now on who gets what, instead of everyone deciding after he passes what they want. Maybe you can convince your step-father to instead agree to a procedure (whether it's similar to the one I described or your own) on how the items will be divided after he passes?
posted by ShooBoo at 9:42 AM on February 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding the idea that there is no way to do this without hurt feelings, if they are the type of people who will get hurt feelings about this stuff. Our previous generation did a round-robin, as described above. So the process was completely fair and if someone wanted to choose an item with financial value over one with sentimental, or vice versa, that was their choice. More than a decade later, the folks who choose will bring up the choices of the others, or how a certain piece was sold by someone else, etc., etc. etc. You know the personalities better than we do, but if there's tension now, there will be tension after the fact.

You don't mention if you're the executor or what, but if you're not, you may have very limited options.
posted by wnissen at 9:47 AM on February 6, 2017

When my father was clearing out our old family home, we each (5 siblings) wrote down what we wanted. If only one person wanted it, that was that. We did a bit of bartering over a few items, which left only a small number of things which we raffled. But we all get along very well, and while there was some difference in the monetary value of what we got, nobody really cared.

One thing I would be careful of in your case is if there are valued items which go back to the previous generation: many people would consider it unfair if, for example, your grandmother's embroidery went to your step-siblings rather than her own descendants, while you ended up with things that came from their grandparents. While your step-siblings may not have been around much in a long time, they may have sentimental childhood memories of things that were in their grandparents' home, and might develop quite a grudge about them.
posted by Azara at 9:55 AM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Came to add the process listed by ShooBoo. However, I would ask him that your Mom's personal items be set aside for her kids first, and not go into the "lottery".
posted by raisingsand at 9:56 AM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

ShooBoo's process is good. Here's some other variations:

Have each family member make a list of 3 or 10 or whatever items with a lot of sentimental value to them. Have everyone put the list in rank order. ("1. Mom's Pearls. 2. Christmas ornament from Napa vacation. 3. Photo in the den of ducks" ... this helps people think about what they MOST want as a memory.) Try to ensure everyone can have their #1, and then do ShooBoo's process for the others.

Generally you'll want to set a dollar value -- could be $100, could be $1000 -- and anything above that value, the child will "buy out" the item from the estate. (That is, if there are 3 kids and $55,000 cash in equal parts, and mom's pearls are worth $5,000, the child who takes the pearls "buy" them from the estate for $5,000 -- so he gets $15,000 + the pearls, and the other two kids get $20,000 each.) (If dad wants to distribute some of this stuff now, he can keep a running tally and even it up with cash gifts, if he'd like; it gets a little complicated if he gives SOME stuff during life and SOME after death and wants those to even out across the death dividing line, a lawyer would definitely be needed for that.)

This works pretty well, with a couple exceptions. Most people want a few sentimental items with particular meaning, but sometimes you have one child who just wants EVERYTHING their parent owned, and while each individual pair of pants may be worth $10, when they take the ENTIRE WARDROBE, and EVERY FORK, and so on, that does actually diminish the value of the estate. You'd have to decide whether that's fine because you don't have to deal with an estate sale and you'd rather not fight about it, or whether you want to then have a value assigned to the great mass of low-value items that child wants, and have them "buy out" that from the estate.

Anyway, this makes it not matter a lot that maybe one person really loves and has always wanted the antique wedding china worth $4,000 and one person wants a few family pictures and a favorite hat; or someone wants their really nice childhood bedroom set AND a couple of dopey Christmas ornaments where the bed set is worth $2000 and the ornaments are worth nothing. It's agnostic about whether your sentimental items are high-value or worthless; you just have to "buy out" the high value ones from your share of the estate.

Another common method for choosing among disputed items is to go oldest to youngest, each person picking a thing, and then youngest to oldest. So it goes Abe, Beth, Cindy, Dave, Dave, Cindy, Beth, Abe, etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:31 AM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are many good ideas being offered upthread. However,

I personally wish I could avoid the whole thing because I just don't want anymore stuff.

Why don't you just avoid the whole thing? Why do you feel compelled to get involved? No offense intended, but given the tension you acknowledge that arises from the differing interests in step-father's care, what makes you think there will be much - if any - buy-in for anything you suggest?
posted by John Borrowman at 12:32 PM on February 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm with John Borrowman on this one. If you don't want anything, say so. Let those who do work it out among themselves.
posted by toastedbeagle at 2:29 PM on February 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't get involved, it's just a recipe for hurt feelings - especially as you say, you don't care anyway. Why stir the pot?
posted by Jubey at 2:29 PM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is no possible way to deal with it such that no one has hurt feelings. At the very least, this will exacerbate previous family issues, especially if stepkids and his bio kids were not raised together.
posted by corb at 3:12 PM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I understand all of the "if you don't really care, leave it alone," comments. But, it seems the OP's step-father cares a lot and therefore maybe the OP cares to make this work even if OP doesn't really care about getting stuff. Thus the Ask.

Shooboo's process sounds good if there can be any modicum of cooperation. The estate sale route sounds better if people can really be expected to fight. But, if you suggest this and one or more sibs doesn't like it, they will pin it on you.

I think there is less potential for unfairness due to financial position than mskyle predicts because the proceeds of the estate sale will all be redistributed to the heirs so unless there is one super-high value item that people bid up, most should be able to buy what they prefer out of the future returns from the sale (if they have a credit card).
posted by Gotanda at 3:21 PM on February 6, 2017

The problem with the estate sale is that it will wind up with more hurt feelings and anger and deep resentments.

Essentially, part of the problem you are facing here: you're "pretty sure" that your step-dad's will divides evenly between both stepkids and biokids. Do his biokids have the same idea? They may be "pretty sure" that the will favors them, and even if they're not, they may feel it should.
posted by corb at 3:58 PM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since your stepdad is still around, and is interested in talking about the distribution process, maybe he can help lay the rules - might lead to fewer hurt feelings if you can say "we're just trying to do what Dad said" and have his wishes be well-known from the start. Ask him things like whether all the cash value is distributed equally, because that's important. Ask whether there's anything personal of his side of the family that should go to his kids and anything personal of your mom's side that should go to her kids. Ask him if there are any special pieces that he wants to be sure go to somebody who will appreciate them (partly because it will help you identify things that you might have forgotten about, especially if they're special and not in daily use)
posted by aimedwander at 1:39 PM on February 7, 2017

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