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Dos and Don'ts of Dividing Possessions

When a family member dies, figuring out what to do with their possessions can be stressful.

If a parent dies but has a detailed will, for instance, the task can be easier. But if a family member dies without a will or one that isn’t specific about how to divide family heirlooms, it can lead to tension.

Often, it isn’t the things of greatest value that create the most problems. It’s the smaller things—family pictures, collectibles, even that old dish in which Mom cooked her well-loved tuna casserole—that people cherish. How do you divide memories?

To help you figure out how to divide possessions, here are a few suggestions:

Take turns picking items and draw straws to see who goes first. This may work well in cases where families get along relatively well and there isn’t much resentment. You may even be surprised at what family members really value. Did you know your sister loved the 60-year-old elephant shaped cookie jar that sat on your mother’s kitchen counter for decades? Well, if you take turns picking items, you’ll find out. The process may even provide a wonderful trip through your shared past.

Give surviving family members colored stickers to place on items they would like. Those items with only one sticker go to the person who chose them. Those with more than one, see above.

Get appraisals and make a distribution plan. Obviously, this goes for items that have real monetary value. Jewelry, coin collections, antiques—families should take out the guesswork and find out more about their worth. Once that is established, try to split the items evenly. If there are things that no one wants, sell them and split the proceeds.

Make copies. Photos, old 8mm movies and newer VHS tapes can all be turned into digital files. But don’t just think of the photos and movies. Recipe cards, a soldier’s letters from Europe in World War II, newspaper clippings of obituaries and family news are all a part of your history and should be shared among family members. Regardless of your plans to divide these types of items, digitizing them should be done anyway. At some point, you’ll need to pass the items on to future generations and the only way to do that fairly is to be able to make multiple copies.

These are all things you can and should do. But what about what you shouldn’t do? We have a couple of suggestions.

If you’re the executor, don’t take a “my way or the highway” approach. Remember, this is family, and while you’ve lost someone, you still have each other. If you have an otherwise healthy relationship, preserve it. Act collaboratively and with empathy.

Don’t leave anyone out. Did your aunt really like a small dish that belonged to your mother? Ask if she wants it. How about that caregiver who cooked for your father and helped him with other tasks? Perhaps he or she would like a picture, a book or some other token. Maybe that person is the one who really wants the elephant cookie jar. Just remember that there may be people outside your immediate family who would like a memento of the deceased. Communicate with them.

Don’t donate in haste. Once you have distributed the emotionally and monetarily significant items, feel free to donate the rest to a charity or someone in need. You can donate items such as shoes, clothing, kitchen utensils and furniture. Just remember to check first to make sure no one in the family wants them.

If all else fails and dividing your family member’s belongings becomes unbearably contentious, consider hiring a mediator to help you through it. New Jersey has licensed mediators. Websites such as have listings of mediators with descriptions of their experience and area of expertise.