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What Should Our Parents Do with Their Favorite Possessions?

My wife’s grandmother diligently taped the name of one of her granddaughters to every favorite

item in her china cabinet. This was the closest she needed to a last will and testament. It worked

fine in that solid Scandinavian family, but there are often better ways.

1. For small items, a handwritten list, signed and dated, will probably resolve any

ambiguities and ward off disputes.

2. For collections of treasured objects, it might be good to get an appraisal. These

items often have more sentimental value than economic value, and sometimes more

economic value as an intact collection, other times when broken up. If we’re talking

about items of value, getting an expert’s opinion is often a good idea.

3. For the lake cabin, special legal entities are often a good idea. To control family

conflict about who uses it, who maintains it, and who pays what, more and more families

are forming trusts, corporations, or similar entities like an LLC (Limited Liability

Company) to own and operate the property. Family members contribute to upkeep

according to whatever formula they agree upon, and the company arranges for whatever

work needs to be done. There should always be provisions for when members want to

drop out or increase their participation. Family members can make up the board of

directors or trustees but often it’s a good idea to have an outside director, to minimize

conflict. If the property is located in a state other than where your parents live, it will be

important to plan ahead to the property won’t have to go through probate in more than

one state.

People who have experienced a death in the family know how much conflict even minor

possessions can occasion. A little extra planning could avoid a lifetime of resentment.