Four Easy Steps to Distribute Tangible Personal Property at Your Death

By: Kristin Dzialo

As the cold settles in and we are stuck in the house surrounded by our most precious belongings, it is the perfect time to start thinking about our tangible personal property (i.e. that ‘stuff’ you can touch and feel - jewelry, furniture, paintings, cars).  My grandmother put post-it notes under her important tangibles, indicating who would get what at her death.  But things like her teacups and panda collection ended up being a rotational grab bag.   Although this happened to work for my family, it is not something I would ever recommend as a planner.  I have witnessed too many families fight over tangibles after someone passes, because it is often not about the ‘thing.’  It is about the loss, and grief can alter the family dynamic in very unexpected ways.  It is all too true that “A GOAL WITHOUT A PLAN IS JUST A WISH,” and wishes all too often do not come true.

Extremely valuable tangibles, financial or emotional, should be incorporated into your Will or Trust as specific distributions. Tangibles that could cause conflicts in the family should also be written specifically into your plan, to avoid claims of fraud or abuse. However, for most of us, and for the majority of our tangibles, they do not fall under such categories. 

A Tangible Personal Property Memorandum is a wonderful vehicle to simply, and legally, leave personal property to your loved ones.  It is simple to complete because it does not have to be signed in the presence of witnesses or a notary public.  It can be changed over time, crossed out, added to, updated, thrown away.  A signature and a date (to be able to easily identify the most-recent version), is all that is necessary.  It also allows you to leave tangible personal property to anyone that you want – even if the person is not a beneficiary under the rest of your plan.  You may have a neighbor who really loves a painting in your house, or a sibling that you want to leave your grandfather’s watch to, or maybe everything is going to your kids and you want to make sure that your daughter receives your favorite earrings (and not your son’s wife!). 

FIRST, in order to incorporate the distribution of tangible personal property into your plan, your plan documents need to allow for it.  The Tangible Personal Property Memorandum should reference the document it is supporting (such as your Will or Trust). If your Will or Trust is silent on the use of a Tangible Personal Property Memorandum, then you should contact your attorney to amend the documents to allow for its use.

SECOND, be sure that the Tangible Personal Property memorandum references the document it supports.  Keep in mind, if you revoke your Will or amend your trust, you may need to update your memo to reflect the new date or document title. 

THIRD, complete the memo and add to it as time goes on.  Be as descriptive as possible.  Clearly indicate ‘what’ the property is, and ‘to whom’ you want it to go.  Use full names and addresses, and avoid “my sister” or “my son.”  When describing the property, not only describe what it is in as much detail as possible, but also describe where in the house you keep it (if it stays put, of course).  If you have multiple strands of pearls, take a picture and attach it to the memo by reference.   Cash gifts or gifts of real estate should not be included in your memo; such gifts must be incorporated into your plan itself.  Always sign and date the most-recent version of your memo, in the event your distribution terms change or multiple memos are found.  Again, this is something you can add to over time and change as your goals change (or as your relationships change), so take a look at it on a regular or semi-regular basis.

FOURTH, keep the signed, original with your estate-planning documents.  As your Trustees and Personal Representatives should already know where you keep your important documents, it is a good time to remind them and let them know you prepared such a memo.  You do not have to share the contents of the memo with them, but let them know you have one.  If you think there are any items that may cause family tension, discuss it with your loved ones now.  Just letting people know why you did what you did can often give perspective and understanding.  You should also send a copy to your attorney for your file. 

Don’t delay! Remember: A GOAL WITHOUT A PLAN IS JUST A WISH! 

©Eckert Byrne LLC 2016. The information contained herein is for general informational purposes and is not offered as, and should not be construed as, legal advice with respect to any specific matter.  This email does not establish an attorney-client relationship.  You should consult with an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.