When Jerry Garcia the front man for the Grateful Dead past away in 1995, he left behind a collection of custom guitars to Douglas Irwin (the man who created them).
However the rest of the band members of the Grateful Dead did not agree with this. The band argued that all the band instruments were owned as a collective, including Jerry's guitars. This situation was argued after Jerry's death and became an inconvenienced to all parties involved. Douglas Irwin, who built the guitars was forced to file suit to take possession of the guitars. In the long run, the parties reached an agreement and Irwin received Two of the guitars. Later Irwin, who had fallen on hard times, sold both of these guitars.
Fighting over a decedent's possessions is not uncommon, we constantly see cases such as these on a yearly basis. Maybe they are not as specific as guitars, however we all have personal items that contain sentimental value and we cherish. Siblings usually have to arrive to a point where they have to discuss a deceased mother's personal belonging such as an engagement ring, TV, or a favorite coat. Usually one will say these items were gifted to them a year prior, but the other sibling also has equal claim to it. Their mother's will hasn't even been read and trouble is already brewing.
While items such as china, jewelry and photo albums may not be worth nearly as much as Jerry Garcia's iconic guitars, their sentimental value to family members may be incalculable. Arguments over these items might not reach the courtroom, but they could still add to the family's stress in an already difficult time and lead to hard feelings that may never be resolved.
It's not difficult to craft an estate plan that leaves no room for debate, however. Here are three tips to avoid disputes over who gets what:
- Be specific. Don't leave the disposition of family heirlooms to chance — or a judge. Most wills have a standard clause that leaves the distribution of tangible personal property up to the executor to divide among the beneficiaries. When families get along well, this usually isn't a problem. But when the heirs aren't on the same page, this clause opens the door to litigation. Every item in the will should be named, described and left to a named beneficiary. Some states allow the use of a separate memorandum that can be edited to add new items without having to call a lawyer and sign a codicil to the will. It is very important to be very specific always.
- Have the will reviewed periodically. Life is not stagnant. Changes may occur in the law — and in your wealth, health, intentions or family structure. Keeping the estate plan current is an important part of keeping the peace, so you and your advisers should periodically review your estate plan.
- Choose a level-headed executor. Your favorite sibling may not always be the most responsible person and you shouldn't make it personal. It's up to the executor to distribute the bequests to the beneficiaries and address any disputes. An executor with good communication and diplomacy skills can help defuse disagreements and tense situations, which can go a long way to keeping disputes out of court.
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