By “stuff,” I mean tangible personal property. I have helped many sons and daughters, nephews, and nieces, and other younger people, settle the estates of the generation who just then went before them. Deceased people often leave behind a lot of – let’s go ahead and give it the four-letter word – junk. Of course, some of it isn’t junk. In fact, when I coach an estate settlement, my advice to the players concerning tangible personal property is to divide it up first into three piles: (1) stuff to keep; (2) stuff to donate; and (3) stuff to throw away. The ideal picture is of beneficiaries working close together to sort things out, sharing reminiscences with each other about this fond object or that, and then agreeing on who gets what part of the stuff in Pile One. That’s the ideal. Sometimes there is war.
There are various clever ways to avoid war and deal reasonably with Pile One. A client of mine had two sons and he left them the tangible personal property with a method for them to deal with it. The method was as follows. They were to first flip a coin. The “winner” was to sub-divide Pile One into two more piles. The “loser” got to pick which sub-pile the “loser” should receive. The “winner” was left with the other. Then they were to horse trade between the two piles, if they wanted to do. Think about that method. It worked well. They both won.
I did the estate planning for a couple who, every year, took a trip overseas – bringing along on the trips their three children, two daughters and a son. As the children grew up and married, with them came their sons- and daughter-in law, and, finally, the grandchildren. The couple had a huge house with many rooms. When the husband, who died first, passed away, it was just filled with stuff they had brought back from those trips, each object with memories attached. His bright and active wife lived several more fruitful years, and we addressed the “problem” of how she wanted the tangible personal property to be distributed at her death.
Our widow used the provision under the Florida Probate Code that allows someone to designate by means of a “separate writing” – writing separate from her Last Will – who should receive a given item of tangible personal property. To be effective, the Last Will must refer to such a statement or list. In addition, the writing itself “must be signed by the testator and must describe the items and the devisees with reasonable certainty.” What makes the separate writing so useful is that it may be prepared before or after the client signs her Last Will, and it “may be altered [by her] after its preparation.” All the Last Will need do is to refer to the separate writing.
In my case, the widow, with the help of a close friend, went from room to room, describing each item of value on an index card, and writing on that card who should receive it. She then literally compiled a book, with a room for each chapter, containing with the pertinent information on each object in that room. She signed each page and signed again at the end of the book. Although there was a trust company that acted as the Personal Representative and Trustee, she put one of her sons, as a special fiduciary, in charge of executing her directions with respect to the stuff. Believe me, the trust company officials were relieved not to have to deal with all that valuable tangible personal property and all those beneficiaries with respect to it.
It saved time and money. There was no war. Mother had spoken.