How to bequeath your personal possessions

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Wills on Thursday, March 21st, 2019

The chances are that you will have personal possessions that you’d like to be handed on to your family and friends when you die. For example, you may want family jewellery to go to your daughter, a piece of furniture to a cousin, or a particular book or picture to be given to a close friend. If that’s the case, it makes sense to record your wishes so that your executors can ensure they are followed.

Family disputes

Sometimes, who gets what from a parent’s estate can become a source of friction and resentment, especially if a family member feels they had been “promised” a particular item or keepsake.

A recent high-profile case highlights some of the problems that can arise. After Robin Williams’ death, his wife Susan Schneider was locked in a dispute with his three children over the actor’s personal possessions.

The dispute concerned what reasonably constituted his show biz memorabilia as opposed to his personal items, as he had bequeathed the former to his children and the latter to his wife in his Will. Where was the distinction between the two sets of things? This clearly demonstrates that it’s not always money that causes families to become embroiled in a dispute; very often it is items of purely sentimental value.

Although this could be said to be an extreme case, it serves to illustrate the importance of considering all your assets and making it clear how you would like them to be dealt with.

Taking steps to prevent conflict

If you have possessions that you want to leave to specific people, it’s important to make your wishes known. As it’s often the little things that cause conflict and dispute between family members, we would advise against assuming that things will simply sort themselves out when the time comes.

Although it might be a difficult conversation to have, there are clear merits to having an open discussion with other family members. Deciding as a family what should happen to personal possessions can help prevent future disputes.

Putting the right documents in place

Our advice would be to have a ‘Letter of Wishes’ drawn up to be read alongside the Will. Arguably it is not appropriate for such (often quite personal) detail surrounding who should get what and why to be included within the Will itself, bearing in mind this is a document of public record once probate has been granted.

A Letter of Wishes would however have the big advantage of providing an explanation for your beneficiaries to read, and hopefully prevent conflict arising. As the example given above shows, when dealing with collections of things such as jewellery or memorabilia, it can make sense to keep a photograph together with a brief description, so that each piece can be clearly identified by your Executor when the time comes.

Cluttering a Will with details surrounding personal possessions and lists of particular items can also cause complications from an Inheritance Tax standpoint, and is rarely a good idea. Over the years, the chances are that you’ll dispose of certain belongings and acquire new ones, which would mean you would have to consider updating your Will more often than you might feel necessary.

Lesley-Ann Mayhew, Partner in our Wills, Trusts and Probate team, gives the following practical advice: “By using straightforward clauses in your Will, and drawing up a Letter of Wishes to be maintained alongside it, you could save your estate costly legal bills and your executors a difficult task.”

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