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Let’s talk about who’s getting Grandma’s china

Adapted from the author’s book Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate( Minnesota Association for Continuing  Adult Education)

By Marlene S. Stum, Ph.D.

We can all agree that family members should talk to each other about inheritance issues before there’s a crisis or an older relative is unable to communicate. But all too often, aging parents, spouses, siblings, in-laws and adult children have difficulty starting these conversations.

The upshot is that some people end up making inheritance decisions for others–and this often leads to misunderstanding, conflict and resentment. Sensitive communication and advance planning are good for everyone involved.

Why we don’t talk

One reason inheritance conversations don’t happen is denial of a loved one’s mortality (or our own).  Many family members don’t want to talk about death or even give the impression that they’re thinking about something they’re going to inherit. The subject is emotional and may also be fraught with legal and financial complexities.

To complicate matters, some families have a history of old conflicts that were never resolved. And these have a powerful influence on the way they deal with issues of inheritance.

Getting family members to talk in a thoughtful way about subjects they might prefer to avoid–or even acknowledge–has been the focus of my research. Here are some suggestions to help start a calm, fruitful discussion of who will inherit personal possessions.

Starting the conversation

If you are the one who is raising the issue, be clear about your concerns. What do you want to have happen and why? For example, if your grandmother promised to give you her silverware, do you want to make sure that this was written down and other family members are aware of it?

If a relative raises an issue, be willing to listen and talk. Adult children are as likely as their parents or in-laws to resist conversations about inheritance. But if you don’t speak up, you can’t expect other people to know what you’re thinking or feeling.

Ask “what if” questions. For example: “Dad, what would you want to have happen with the things in the house if you and Mom were no longer able to live here?”

Look for a natural opening. If a friend or neighbor is dealing with the transfer of personal possessions because someone died or is moving, this can be a good opportunity to introduce a discussion in your family. You might ask: “What would we have done if we were in this situation?”

Recognize that people have different feelings and opinions. Focus on discovering those areas where family members agree and where they disagree.

Think about timing. Although your entire family may be together for a funeral, for example, this may not be the right time to make decisions about personal property.

For more information and resources to help families talk about inheritance issues, call 1-800-876-8636 or visit the University of Minnesota Extension Service website at www.yellowpieplate.umn.edu.

How to make personal property inheritance issues easier for families

Be aware that decisions about personal possessions are often more challenging than those about titled property such as a house or a condo. Making light of how possessions are divided can lead to long-term disagreements.

2 Recognize that decisions may involve objects whose value has increased over a lifetime and across generations. As a result, who gets what can have both economic as well as emotional consequences.

3 Old issues of power and control may lie just beneath the surface and are often at the heart of what goes wrong with inheritance decisions. Listen for feelings and emotions. Watch out for blaming. See if you can agree to disagree when a conflict arises.

4 Family members may have different perceptions of what is ”fair.” All those involved need to uncover any unwritten rules and assumptions about fairness that may exist in the family.

5 Recognize that being fair doesn’t necessarily mean being ”equal.” Dividing personal property is tricky. Come up with a strategy that fits your circumstances and that family members agree on. For example, you might put possessions into categories (jewelry, furniture, etc.) and  have siblings take turns making choices. People who have input and who agree on how decisions will be made are much more likely to feel to feel the outcome likely to feel  the outcomes of those decisions are fair.

6 A candid discussion about what each family member would like to accomplish—and to receive—can clarify everyone’s expectations. Understanding each other’s intentions makes distribution options easier.

7 Be clear about any items of personal property that have special meaning to you now. Don’t make “who gets what” decisions based on old assumptions. Not everyone will find the same items meaningful and over time people change their minds about what’s important to them.

8 Putting one’s wishes in writing can be tremendously helpful in reducing dilemmas for estate executors and family members.

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