“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Over the years I have noticed many of my clients focus their time and efforts planning for the distribution of their real property and financial assets (residences, businesses, stocks, bonds, etc.) rather than their tangible personal property. Often the allocation of their tangible personal property is merely an afterthought. For those unfamiliar, “tangible personal property” consists of physical property, with the exception of real property, that you own. This would include your furniture, jewelry, collections, artwork, firearms, etc. Neglecting to plan for the transfer of tangible property is understandable when you consider the higher monetary value of real property and financial assets (obviously there are exceptions). The problem with this apathetic approach is while most beneficiaries don’t feel an emotional attachment to stocks in their parent’s investment portfolio, they do tend to be emotionally attached to the things like a grandfather clock that’s been in their family for multiple generations or their grandfather’s pistol from World War II. Unfortunately, I have seen families torn apart from squabbling over what outsiders would consider very trivial items. Ironically that same squabbling family usually got along quite well while their parents were alive to keep the peace.
So how do you properly designate assets to beneficiaries and avoid the hostilities? A two-part solution should alleviate most problems and hostilities amongst loved ones. Step one is to have an open and frank discussion with your loved ones. If you do not openly discuss who wants what and why, it’s very unlikely everyone will be happy with the final distributions. This conversation gives your beneficiaries the opportunity to voice their opinions. It also gives you the opportunity to explain why you have made certain decisions. While you may not feel the need to justify your reasons to your beneficiaries, this can provide a certain amount of closure to beneficiaries and avoid the dreaded “Mom loved you more than me” feelings after your death.
The second step involves a fundamental mantra that has been engrained into every lawyer; “GET IT IN WRITING.” Too many people feel their loved ones will simply be able to work things out without written direction. Some families are able to amicably work things out; however, family discord is the norm when a decedent fails to plan for the distribution of tangible personal property. One of the more common mistakes is when a decedent places “Post-It” notes on the underside of family heirlooms. The presumption being that everyone will abide by the unspoken Post-It note pseudo-law. (You should know that there is no actual Post-It note law). Unfortunately, the first dishonest person in the decedent’s home only has to swap a few Post-It notes (or make new ones) to make sure they get the “good stuff.”
Most well drafted Wills or Living Trusts will include a Tangible Personal Property Memorandum (Every estate plan from JGB includes these memorandums for our clients). In simple terms, the memorandum allows you to describe and identify which items will pass to which specific beneficiaries. These memorandums are legally enforceable because they are signed, dated and in writing. The memorandums can even be changed in the future without having to adjust the legal provisions of the Will or Living Trust. VA CODE § 64.2-400 sets out the legal parameters for these tangible personal property distributions.
Simply put, proactive planning and an open line of communication with your family will almost always end in a more efficient and harmonious administration after your death. Failure to discuss your plan with those tasked to implement it will almost always end in hurt feelings and discord. If you have further questions or concerns regarding your tangible effects memorandum please contact your JGB attorney.