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Dividing up family treasures challenging
When Patti Miller's father, Kester Miller, died, each of his children was offered one of the vintage cars he had restored. She chose the 1929 Model A Ford. Later, when Miller's mother, Joyce, decided to downsize to an apartment, Miller organized the estate sale with help from her siblings.

Treasured possessions passed down from loved ones — a mother's brooch, a father's fishing creel — sometimes have a sentimental worth far above their cash value.

Deciding how to distribute those objectsa after a death, or as an elderly relative downsizes, can be a challenge.

In some families, disputes over who gets those objects after a death can sour family relationships and cause siblings to stop speaking to each other for years.

Billings attorney John Jones calls it "fighting over teacups."

"It's probably the Number One nemesis of probate," said Jones, an attorney with Moulton Bellingham Longo & Mather.

Disputes over those beloved objects can cause grownups to dredge up hurt feelings over incidents dating back to childhood. Material possessions, like the teacups, can be the flashpoint for smoldering resentments over complex family relationships.

"Any reasonable person's not going to ruin a relationship over some dishware," Jones said.

The issue may be more about getting back at a sibling for some past hurt than about the item itself, he said.

Even lowly objects, like grandma's pie plates, can be imbued with a sentimental value far beyond their worth.

Bernice Mason, a Yellowstone County extension agent, gives presentations on the transfer of personal possessions. For the talks, she uses materials developed by the Minnesota Extension Service and titled "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" The basis of the program is available in a free Montguide from the Montana State University Extension Service.

By all accounts, minimizing friction over the transfer of personal possessions starts with planning. Montana law allows a person to distribute tangible personal property through a list, which is referred to in the will. The list, which can be kept at home, specifically describes objects and designates their intended recipients.

Although it can be used to transfer belongings, the list is not a legal way to distribute cash or titled documents.

Ideally, when people do estate planning, they take time to think about their goals in transferring personal property. While some might believe a "fair" distribution means treating everyone equally, others might factor in the contributions of the potential heir to the family over the years and differences among family members in terms of financial needs, birth order or family status.

"Discussing the planning with the children, so they're aware what their parents are planning to do can alleviate a lot of division after death," said Robert "Jock" Michelotti Jr., an attorney with the Crowley law firm.

If parents feel comfortable letting potential heirs know what they are trying to accomplish, it may avoid misunderstandings and false assumptions about their intentions. It also helps heirs feel confident they are acting in accordance with their parents' wishes.

Parents might start the conversation by asking if there are special items their children might want. Offspring sometimes start those conversations by asking hypothetical questions, such as, "Have you thought about what you would want done with your possessions if you could no longer live in your own home?"

Mason suggests taking the idea a step further by filling out a three-column worksheet describing each special belonging, why the item is special, who should receive it and why. Another worksheet asks children or other potential beneficiaries to identify items that have a special meaning to them, describe why the items seem special and explain how they would feel if someone else received it.

"Generally the males are not interested in the dishware and the girls aren't interested in the gun collection, but you never know," Jones said.

The worksheets are one way of getting people to relate stories behind family heirlooms.

Mason recalls how a serving spoon used by her mother took on added meaning when she found out that her grandmother had brought it to this country from her birthplace in Russia. One workshop participant was so pleased by the memories expressed in those worksheets that she put all the responses in a book and saved them, Mason said.

Some individuals like to give away selected items before their death or respond to requests for items from family members. Others feel comfortable asking children, the spouses of their children or grandchildren what they might like to receive.

Some may wish to make their decisions known at a family gathering, when everyone involved can be present.

Trouble arises when people promise an object to one family member and give it or leave it to another.

Mason remembers the story of a quilter who had promised several family members the same quilt. Mason also cautions against using masking tape to attach the names of intended beneficiaries to objects because the tape can become brittle and fall off or be removed.

Michelotti often counsels elderly clients to begin giving away some of their possessions before they die.

Jones suggests creating a gift ledger, a spreadsheet-looking document to track where the items have gone.

Some people enjoy the satisfaction of giving the gifts at birthdays or holidays along with a note describing the item's history or sentimental value.

Despite the best-laid plans, some situations seem primed to explode. Sometimes the children get along, but their spouses create issues or one sibling stubbornly refuses to play by the rules.

"What happens sometimes is that the person who is most vocal in the family gets the stuff," Mason said.

Another potentially explosive scenario can occur when the mother dies and the father remarries and leaves it to the stepmother to decide who gets what upon his death. In those situations, stepchildren sometimes inherit sentimental items or family heirlooms acquired during the previous marriage.

When a will calls for dividing personal property equally as the heirs agree, some families employ a "rotating choice" method for divvying up property. They cut cards or draw straws to see who takes the first turn at choosing among items on a list. They continue, reversing the order each round, until each item has a new owner.

Mason has also heard of families who auction items. To level the playing field between wealthy and less-affluent family members, they use play money, allowing everyone to start with the same amount.

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or 657-1292.

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