Family life: Conversations now can save family relationships later

Family life: Conversations now can save family relationships later

By Chelsey Byers/University of Illinois Extension

One of the most requested programs that I teach to various groups in our community is called Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate. This program elicits great conversation among the participants, as many have a personal story to share.

Almost everyone has personal belongings such as a family heirloom, china or something as simple as a yellow pie plate with meaning for them and for other family members. What happens to your personal belongings when you die? Who decides who gets what? How can these decisions be made during your lifetime?

Planning for the transfer of personal items is a challenge for the owner and, potentially, family members and legal representatives who are left to make decisions when a family member dies.

The issue of who receives the personal property is frequently ignored until a crisis occurs. Many families assume it isn't important, or it will just take care of itself. However, experiences of family members and their attorneys suggest otherwise. Transferring non-titled property is an issue that impacts individuals regardless of financial worth, heritage or cultural background.

There are no magic formulas for transferring property, but there are some important factors to consider.

Understand the sensitivity of the issues. Decisions about personal property involve dealing with the emotions connected to objects accumulated over a lifetime or across generations. It is often the emotional value attached to personal belongings that makes the transfer issue so challenging.

Decide what is to be accomplished. An important part of distributing personal property is setting goals and agreeing on what is to be accomplished. The transfer method you choose may vary depending on the goals you identify.

Decide what fair means in your family. Many people will say they want to be fair to all members of their family; however, fair may have many different interpretations. For some, it means everyone is treated equally with everyone getting the same. For others, it means everyone is treated equitably or receives something, taking into account differences among family members. Individuals often believe that something is unfair when the rules they believe to be important aren't followed. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings result when family members fail to learn what others consider to be fair.

Identify the meaning of objects. Special belongings are meaningful to individual family members in different ways. Therefore, an important step in making decisions about transferring non-titled property is to make a list of special objects. Include on this list the meaning attached to each item, what makes that item special and who should receive each item and why. Many parents choose to gather information from their children, grandchildren, or others before deciding what to pass on to whom.

Recognize distribution options and consequences. Families use a variety of methods to distribute non-titled property. No method is perfect for all families. From the beginning, it is important that the individuals involved discuss, identify and agree upon a method or methods of transfer. While families should be creative as they seek solutions, they also need to be aware of state laws governing the transfer of non-titled property and work within the legal guidelines.

When a property owner makes decisions before death it lets the owner think about the recipients' wishes. It may also mean fewer misunderstandings about the owner's wishes. When people don't plan before their death, there are a limited number of options for distributing their property. Whatever method is used, it is important to realize the potential consequences of each.

Distribution methods that require planning prior to death include gifting before death, preparing a list of who is to receive which items after your death, and making a will. Gifting before death is the most certain way to make sure items go to the intended recipients. While Illinois law does recognize a dated, signed list of personal property with the intended recipients identified, attorneys often advise you also list those items in your will. At a minimum, your will should include the statement that a list has been prepared and it is the giver's wish that distribution be made according to the list.

Another distribution method is to sell the non-titled property. Auctions and other types of sales can be held either within the family or for the general public. Another method is an in-family distribution using some kind of selection, such as a lottery.

The transfer of non-titled property is an issue that can impact all individuals and families regardless of their financial worth or the amount of property to be distributed. Paring down and transferring personal property, while inevitable, is a situation for which few individuals plan and this is often the cause of family disagreements. However, there may be fewer disagreements when they understand the sensitivity of the issue, decide what fair means to their family and consider various distribution options. A potentially difficult and negative situation can become a time to celebrate the past and bond as a family. This can especially be true when you share the story behind your items or the family history of the family heirloom.

This article is adapted from the lesson, Who Gets Grandmas Yellow Pie Plate, written by fellow University of Illinois Family Life Educators. For more information on family life-related topics visit our local University of Illinois Extension website or contact Chelsey Byers at 217-333-7672 or at

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):People