Q. Our father appointed me as executor of his estate, and I want to distribute his personal possessions among the four of us children in a way that is fair. Any suggestions as how I might do this?

A. Yes. I assume by your question that your father did not leave any specific direction in his will or in a separate memorandum, and that you are therefore left to your own discretion in handling this task. Here are some suggestions:

  • Draw lots and take turns picking items. Change the order with each round of choosing, so that everybody gets a chance to pick “first”.  Example: since there are 4 of you, the order of choosing personal items would go as follows: 1-2-3-4, 2-3-4-1, 3-4-2-1, 4-1-2-3, and then repeat.
  • Assign each sibling a set of stickers, with each sibling assigned his own color. Ask each to affix his own colored sticker to the items that he wants. If an item only has one sticker on it, it will go to that person; where an item has more than one sticker, you then revert to taking turns, as above.
  • Where possible, make copies. While many personal furnishings are unique, in the case of photographs and videos, copies can be made that are nearly identical to the original.
  • Get appraisals for items of value. This would be a good approach if there are items of particular value among the furnishings; otherwise, the child with the first turn may walk away with the Picasso.  Again, you would take turns, but you would go through several rounds so that everyone ends up with comparable value:  some would get one or two items, while others would receive a greater number, with each sibling walking away with items of roughly equivalent value.  Alternatively, a child getting the most valuable item(s) might pay the others for the excess value in order to establish rough equivalency.
  • Sell items and divide the proceeds. This is a real no-brainer, especially as to items that have no significant emotional value, but may have some resale value.
  • Work with a neutral third-party who can act as a kind of mediator/arbitrator to defuse any strong feelings among siblings. This could be a mutual friend whom everyone respects, or a hired professional.  For professional assistance, contact the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM) at nasmm.org or call 1-877.606.2766.

For more information, a very readable reference entitled “Who Will Get Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?”, is available in workbook format through Amazon.com.

For those who are designing their estate plans and wish to give their executors guidance, know that California permits the will-maker to create a dated and signed memorandum, designating the disposition of tangible personal property.  The memorandum can be periodically updated even without redoing the will.  The limitation is that no single item can have a value more than $5000, and the total value of all items listed cannot exceed $25,000.  Thus, where items are likely to increase in value over time, or where values may be disputed, the use of this memorandum is not recommended.