Tuesday Legal Tip: Who Gets Your Stuff?


This past weekend, we went to an estate auction. To me, auctions are an entertaining way to spend a Saturday, even when I don’t come home with a great deal. What do auctions have to do with legal tips? Well, much of the stuff at personal property auctions is being sold because someone passed away and an auction is the easiest way to sell it all. Sometimes, family members are present at the auction, attempting to buy family heirlooms for a fair price since the family could not agree on who should get what items.

A few weeks ago, we talked about probate, which is the process your family has to go through to pay your debts and distribute your property when you pass away. Today, we’re going to discuss different ways your assets may be distributed. In other words, who gets your stuff after you pass away?

There are several ways to leave items to your family, but for most people the best way to ensure the right person gets the correct items is to create a will explaining your wishes. Wills are hard to argue with and they’re in writing, so your family is more likely to stick with the plan you made in your will than the informal chat you may have had several years ago when you all happened to be together and the subject happened to come up.

Here are a few tips for deciding how to distribute your personal items in your will:

  • Be as specific as possible. You may know what you’re talking about, but will your family know? More importantly, will a court know? If everyone in the family knows which china set belonged to your mother, listing the set as “grandmother’s china” might suffice, but you’re usually better off listing the set specifically by the name of the company and the pattern type.
  • Check into a personal property memorandum. Many states allow a personal property memorandum which is an attachment to your will that lists the specific property you wish to leave to certain individuals. You can change your personal property memorandum without changing your will so the memorandum is easier to update as you buy and sell items throughout your lifetime.
  • Talk to your family, but get it in writing. Sometimes, people want to avoid the issue of dividing property so they leave everything to one person, hoping that person will distribute the property appropriately. Maybe they will, but maybe they won’t — either way, why burden that person? Talk to your family about your plans, but put those plans in the will rather than just hoping they remember the conversation you had.
  • Assume you’ll die rich. Many of my clients told me they put off getting a will because they “didn’t have anything anybody would want anyway.” Maybe…but maybe not. You really have no idea how rich or poor you’ll be when you die, so why not plan your will as if you have a substantial amount to leave behind?
  • Make a backup plan. It’s not unheard of for family members to die at the same time or very close in time. In your will, you can name a successor for each inheritance. That way your property still goes to the people you intend even if the original recipient passes away before you do.

Of course, this all assumes you have a will. We’ll discuss next time what happens when you don’t leave a will behind for your family to follow. In the meantime, if you’re interested in getting a will, I recommend calling your favorite attorney or looking at Legal Zoom or another online legal document provider. It doesn’t have to be difficult and expensive to get a will, so why not look into it?

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. See my posting policy here.

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One thought on “Tuesday Legal Tip: Who Gets Your Stuff?

  1. […] our Tuesday Legal Tip posts discussed the probate process and how to name beneficiaries in your will. I promised you a post on what happens if you don’t have a will…so here it […]

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