Sometimes More Information is Better
Without question, the best way for that process to go is to have the one who's no longer with us make the decisions about the critical items. This can be done by means of specific bequests in a will or by binding directions to the trustee of a trust, or it can consist of informal written guidelines to the executor or trustee about how the decedent hopes the distribution process will go. It's often helpful, too, for those decisions to be accompanied by words of explanation about why a particular designation was made. That can not only be very meaningful to the recipient, but also help dispel recriminations about whether the old guy really knew what he was doing at that point.
Even if there are only a few significant pieces to deal with, there are often many more that will have to be allocated among the family recipients. The recently departed can also help with that process, too, by documented conversations held beforehand, if there's time, or by indicating how the division of the remaining items should go. Some parents and grandparents come right out and ask their offspring to choose what they hope to receive, even putting colored dots or names on the backs or bottoms of the antique lamps and tables. Then they leave a written request that their executor or trustee honor those selections, if possible, or come up with a fair way to parcel out the treasures that everyone may want.
Sometimes it's helpful for decedents to leave instructions about how they want the decision-making process to be structured - that can take the pressure off the harried executor or trustee. Maybe they want the family members to draw lots about who goes first in making choices; or maybe they want it to go down the line from oldest to youngest. I heard someone suggest that the person who goes first in the first round (1,2,3,4,5) should go last in the second round, (2,3,4,5,1), and so on.
No matter how the selection process is conducted, though, it's very helpful for a decedent to let the executor or trustee know whether the value of items is to be factored in, or whether that's not an element to be considered. If values are important, then the allocation process needs to take that into account, with disparities in value perhaps to be made up in the division of other estate or trust assets. If values aren't significant, then family members should know that at the outset, as that may have a great deal to do with how they make their choices, or how the fiduciary allocates items among them. One thing is clear on this score: If no preference is indicated, the executor or trustee will be required to use the items' values (usually determined by a qualified appraisal) as the determining factor and to make sure each beneficiary receives items totaling approximately equal value.
For all these reasons, I think you can see how the choice of an executor or trustee can be critical. If it's going to be a family member - and particularly if the fiduciary is also one of the beneficiaries - and even more so if there are items of significant value coupled with beneficiaries who may have volatility issues, shall we say - then that person needs not only to have the wisdom of Solomon, but also to be someone the rest of the family trusts for fairness, reasonableness and diplomacy worthy of Middle East peace negotiations. If no one in the family fills that bill, then it may be possible to turn to a close family friend - with full disclosure about the perils that lie ahead - or just to designate a professional adviser whose business it is to be paid for assuming the substantial risks involved.
The bottom line is that you can't be too deliberate or clear about your wishes in these situations. It's one thing for family members to be disappointed that they didn't receive what they'd hoped for, but if they have your reasons to fall back on, that may help considerably. It may also help for you to tell them it's not the monetary value that counts to you - because you hope none of your treasures will be sold anyhow - but that what's important is for everyone to receive the small or large thingy that's the most meaningful to them - or to you. I got my grandfather's roll-top desk, and I think about him every time I sit down there. He died 50 years ago, so I'd say that legacy has worked out pretty well for both of us.
Posted 08/27/2015 Estate Planning