Dividing Personal Property Heirlooms After Death

Tracy Ellis has a good post and solution on an alternative method to dividing up personal property items.  As I frequently tell clients, its not the division of the bank accounts or stocks that cause family rifts, but the division of the personal family mementos and heirlooms.  Edivvyup provides an alternative method for dividing the family items amongst the family members in the form of an on-line auction.  Rather than using your own money, you are given a certain number of credits and through the the private on-line bidding process, you can use your credits to secure the family items.

To avoid any bidding or fighting over your personal items, preparation of a list for distribution of your personal assets is the ideal planning method.  No method is perfect and sometimes a fight cannot be avoided, but attempting to equitably divide the assets and preserve family harmony are important goals that an attorney should aim for.
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Comments (10) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Shawn - September 26, 2008 12:59 PM

Great Uncle H was the youngest of 5. Dies. Only one of the siblings has children. H never marrries and has no biological children.

During H's lifetime, he takes on a foster son at age 10, called T, whom he does not adopt. T never ives with H.
Foster son T "inherits all" Then, without consulting anyone, the foster son "divides" all of H's personal property. Actually, T keeps everything and sends on a box of junk to H's nieces. Foster son keeps all photos, letters, personal items and antique clock that belongs to H's blood ancestors. T is 100% unrelated to these "ancestors/heirlooms". T has no meaningful contact with these blood ancestors or their descendants. H devises a cash amount to his only living nieces. Only three little girls thru H's nieces survive....little girls are 100% related to heirlooms.

Foster son T refuses to relinquish these Heirloom items to their blood descendents. He claims that they have "meaning to him" and have been in storage since 2002!

No other items were requested of T.

Are the 3 little girls out of luck?

Matthew Gardner - September 26, 2008 5:28 PM

Potentially, yes. Assuming that there was a valid will that disposed of all of the assets to T, the fact of the "blood relationship" does not give the little girls any legal right to those heirlooms. You could contest the validity of the will, which is a challenge.

A will effectively disposes of your assets and you can benefit whomever you like, blood relative or not. About the only exception to that general rule is that you can't entirely disinherit your spouse.

Kelly - July 17, 2009 7:16 PM

I am the executor/PR for my recently-deceased grandmother's estate. The will states that the personal effects are to be divided among the heirs. Anything that cannot be agreed upon is to be sold at my discretion. There are 9 heirs specified in the will. I am looking for ideas OTHER THAN a free-for-all on, what I have come to refer to as, the Day of Reckoning. I want this to begin and end in one session - no returns, no exchanges, no lay away, no "I'll come and get it later". There are some personalities involved who will make it very difficult for anyone to get anything. The sad thing is, there is nothing of real value, but one individual is going to want whatever anyone else wants just to have more. I have not the stomach, time or energy to settle disputes all day while folks argue over the 3" ceramic cat and the pink candy dish.

Appreciate any suggestions.

Thank you, KBL

Matt Gardner - July 20, 2009 8:21 AM


Welcome to the thankless job of executor.

As I mentioned in the blogpost, there is a website where you can provide a procedure to have the beneficiaries bid on the items. You can do a similar process on your own where you have an “auction” with phantom money you give the beneficiaries. Or, you can just have each take alternating turns in selecting one item until they are all done. If someone doesn’t take their items in a timely fashion, just let them know you have to clear out the house and give them the phone number of a storage facility to store the items or else you’ll presume that they changed their mind and don’t want the items. As long as you are fair and reasonable and keep track of your communications with them, you should be fine. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have your work cut out for you, however. Work with your attorney on coordinating some of these matters.

Good luck.

melissa - July 27, 2009 9:29 PM

My mother in law passed away and my husband has items such as pictures, stuffed animals and photo albums in her house that belong to him. I also have items that are now locked in her garage, such as beach toys and things like that. Her daughter changed the locks and will not let us have our stuff. Is that legal?

Matt Gardner - July 29, 2009 10:42 AM


The court-appointed personal representative of an estate has an obligation to secure property and determine what was owned by the decedent. If the daughter is that personal representative, she has at least temporary power to reasonably ascertain what was owned by the decedent. At some point, you can seek court assistance in having your property returned if she is uncooperative. The legal term for that type of action is "replevin".

Maria Christina Bautista - December 5, 2010 9:58 PM

My brother was married more than 1 year, then he passes away without last will and testament. His wife plans to sell all the personal & real property of my brother, knowing that all is not a conjugal property and aside from that they don't have child. My question is, what is the right of my sister-in-law in my brothers property. Is there any possibility that my mother have a share in left property of my brother? Thank you and more power!

Matt Gardner - January 10, 2011 10:07 PM

Unless there are children from a prior relationship, the surviving spouse gets all the property, if there is no will. The mother has no rights (only if there is no spouse or children would the parent have a claim.)

jen casey kennedy - April 12, 2012 9:19 AM

i have supported my now 91 year old mother for 25 years.she lives in my "rental" house, never has paid any rent, taxes, ins or maint. i am her daily caregiver, I have moved her in my house twice after illnesses and redid the rental and moved her back in. She thinks she is fragile and ill, which she is not but is a way to not to have to do anything for herself-which she does not. We just lost her 98 yr old cousin and now all of a sudden my sister is listing all of the things she wants because"she is the oldest". of course all of the things she wants are the antiques that are worth something..she has never visited for 54 yrs., she calls once in a while but makes it short...any ideas? supporting my mom for 25 years means my retirement money went to her.

Matt Gardner - April 12, 2012 9:29 AM


Get a will for your mother. Then, you can use the property list I mentioned in my blog post. However, this will need to be your mom's decision - not your's or your sister's. Just because a person is a child or the oldest does not entitle them to anything under a will. Even without a will, the age of a child has nothing to do with distribution.

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