Hyden, Miron & Foster, PLLC Law Blog

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

It’s Not Like You See on TV

In pretty much every sitcom ever made, there is an episode where one of the main characters inherits some strange object after the will of a deceased relative or friend is publicly read. The concept is so ingrained in pop culture that most people are shocked to find out that such things hardly ever happen in real life. 

Most people simply do not leave directions about what to do with specific objects in their wills. And one of the main reasons why, is that their lawyers tell them not to.

Why Putting Lots of Specific Instructions in Your Will Is Generally a Bad Idea

The main reason it is a bad idea to list a bunch of items in your will is that it makes the will weaker. Each item listed opens you up to a legal challenge over the validity of the will as a whole.

For example, if you leave an item to your niece that everyone expected you to leave to your granddaughter, you family might use that as evidence that your will doesn’t really reflect your wishes. They can argue that you were obviously out of your mind when you made the will because everyone knew you were leaving your stamp collection to your granddaughter, not your niece.

Issues can also arise if the person you leave an item to dies before you, or doesn’t want the item, and there is no back-up recipient listed. This can create a real headache for the person administering your estate because they have to then convince the court that whatever alternative plan for the item they come up with is one you would approve of.

Finally, wills become part of the public record when an estate is probated. Do you really want your nosey neighbor from down the street to see a list of all your most prized possessions? Probably not.

3 Better Ways of Distributing Your Family Heirlooms

1. Pass on as many items as you can while you are alive. This is not legal advice so much as it is life advice. We have worked with many estate planning clients over the years, and the ones who are happiest with where their family treasures ended up are the ones who went ahead and gifted them to the people they wanted to inherit them while they were still alive. You can get a lot of joy from seeing how much it means to your loved ones that they are going to have something special to remember you by.

Something that we have also seen happen is that starting to distribute items will get a conversation started that will allow you to figure out who really wants what. And we mean this in the best way possible. A lot of the time are clients are really shocked, once again in a good way, about what objects their relatives find meaningful. 

If you have a bunch of really valuable items that are you planning to gift to family and friends while you are still alive you should still consult with your estate planning attorney about them. You don’t want to be in a situation where a gift is so valuable you owe taxes on the transfer.

2. Leave a list of suggestions, but know that it is probably not legally binding. If you really want to go the list route, we recommend creating a list, but just putting it in a safe place and letting the person who is going to administer your estate know where they can find it.

The downside of this option is that the list may not be legally binding. We can work with you to make sure it is as iron-clad as possible, but this still leaves you open to challenges from people who think they were snubbed.

3. Trust your family and friends to work things out as they see fit. Doing nothing is also an option. If you don’t want to distribute items while you are alive, and you trust your friends and family to do what they think is best after you are gone, you can just sit back and relax and not worry about this issue at all.


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