Unlike financial assets, which can generally be divided easily amongst heirs, tangible personal property is unique. The complexity of distributing a lifetime’s worth of possessions is something many people overlook. Families have been torn apart over everything from ownership of a valuable painting, a grandfather clock, or even a gun collection. Sometimes the object in question is an item of substantial material value, but just as often, it seems, the appeal is purely sentimental. People get emotionally attached to objects that symbolize the person they are mourning.

Discussing these issues while parents are still alive is far preferable to letting children fight it out for themselves later. Some people address this subject before they die, by giving away possessions as they downsize, or asking which items have special meaning to the family member. Others have had adult children express their preferences by putting their names on the bottom of things while the older generation is still alive.

If there is only one or two valuable possessions, your estate plan might for example, direct the executor of the will or the trustee of a trust to sell the diamond or the valuable painting, and divide the proceeds among the heirs. If one of them really wants a particular item and has the funds, he or she could buy it from the estate at the fair market value. Another approach, if only one person asks for certain expensive pieces, is to honor those wishes and reduce that heir’s share of assets.

For sentimental items you want to go to specific people, it’s best to say so in your estate plan. The question is what to do about everything else. One possibility is to direct your heirs to divide belongings in substantially equal shares and if they sell anything, to use the cash to equalize things. Another is to map out a very specific rotation of choice – for instance, by birth order – so everyone gets a turn to use or possess the object. Planning now can eliminate heartache and disappointment later. Be Educated! Be Proactive!