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Who Gets What When You’re Gone?

By Marie Burns October 20, 2020 Family

When one of my nieces was just a little thing, maybe 4 or 5 years old, she saw a spoon rack on her grandmother’s wall (my mother-in-law). It is one of those wooden shelves that holds tiny spoons my in-laws had collected from various states they had travelled to across the United States over the years.

“Grandma,” she said. “When you’re gone, can I have your spoon rack?” Fast forward 30+ years. Now the family jokes with grandma to be sure she has Missy’s name on the back of that spoon rack!

In this scenario, there is no doubt who gets the spoon rack when grandma is gone, but what if you don’t have a spoon rack? Or rather, what if you haven’t assigned names to who gets what when you’re gone?

A Family Affair

I bet you know of a family or two that, after a loved one passed, had a dispute over who got what. No one thinks their family will be like that. And yet it happens way too often when nothing has been written down about the deceased’s wishes.

Ironically, it is often over small value items or sentimental belongings, not expensive, valuable personal property or money.

The Missing Collection

One family accused son A, who regularly visited the father, of taking a collection that had been kept in the father’s garage rafters. It seemed to have disappeared shortly after the father passed.

Turned out it was son B, who accused son A, that had actually taken the collection. But son B blamed the one who everyone knew was in and out of the house regularly to take the spotlight off of himself. The family split, taking sides with each son, and to this day they don’t speak to each other anymore.

The Deposit Box

Another family knew the parents had a safe deposit box. One adult child was designated as the personal representative/executor to help settle the estate after the parents passed.

What followed were accusations that the executor had removed some of the safe deposit box jewelry before bringing it to the rest of the family for distribution. Without a written inventory of what was supposed to be in the safe deposit box, it was difficult to settle this “he said, she said” situation.

Odd Ways of Distribution

How have you seen other families distribute items when there were no wishes in writing? I have heard of:

  • families marking items with sticky notes,
  • putting names into a hat for a random drawing,
  • arguing over letting the oldest to the youngest keep making selections until everything is distributed,
  • debating about selling the car vs giving it to a family member who needs a vehicle, etc.

The list of approaches goes on and on, and there are usually hard feelings in the end anyway!

Someday May Never Come

I am not licensed to give estate planning advice, and I don’t advise families on legal matters. That is their estate planning attorney’s job. But after two decades of working with clients and their estate planning attorneys, I do serve as a pretty good radar detector.

For example, I see the attorney’s wording within the will or trust to remind them of the option to create a Personal Property Disposition List. That’s a fancy legal term for personally creating a list of who gets what.

People usually nod their head in understanding when the attorney tells them they need to do that, and they agree they will make that list, someday. Unfortunately, someday never seems to come.

So, when I am reviewing various areas of financial planning with clients, I ask about how long it’s been since they and their estate planning attorney have reviewed their documents. Attorneys recommend a review every 3-5 years, when you have had a change in circumstances or when the law has changed, whichever comes first.

Then, as part of that discussion, I also ask whether they have their Personal Property Disposition List written. “My what?” is usually the response to that question.

The Easy Part

You can literally handwrite on any piece of paper a list of items and who you want to receive each item when you are gone. Then sign and date at the bottom of each page to create your Personal Property Disposition List.

The more specific you are the better (describe the item so it is clear what is being identified; name the person; don’t just say grandson, daughter, etc.).

You can rewrite and then replace the list at any time, all without an attorney or notary needed. The current copy should be kept with your will/trust and the old one should be shredded as it is replaced.

The moral of the story seems to be that the more you can communicate your wishes, the less stress and potentially broken relationships there will be in the end. To raise awareness and make it an easier task to accomplish, I provide tools on my website to do just that on my website.

You can find fill-in-the-blank forms as a free download at MMM for both a Personal Property Disposition List and a Safe Deposit Box Inventory. It can be especially important when you have become Suddenly Single, as there is no partner to continue the status quo and decide things at a later time.

It may not be a pleasant thought to think about the time when you will be gone, but how pleasant is it to think of your family arguing over preventable disagreements instead?

Have you experienced or witnessed a family going through a difficult time distributing a loved one’s personal belongings? Is there a system you have seen that works well? If you have created a list, what motivated you to get that done? Please share your thoughts and experiences!

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The Author

Marie Burns, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®), advocates for women’s financial health. She is an author of a financial checklist book series, speaker, podcast host and partners with clients to offer friendly financial advice in her independent practice Visit her at or

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