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Do you have tips on transferring non-titled property?

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When a family member dies, it is relatively straightforward to divide money in a checking account to designated recipients. But without proper planning, it is hard to divide belongings when there is only one wedding ring, one Christmas tree angel, one family bible or one journal. Sadly, most people know someone who won’t speak to other family members because of how non-titled property was divided.

While some non-titled property may have monetary value — antiques, a piano or jewelry, for example — usually dollar value isn’t the issue. Most non-titled objects are valued because they are anchors of family memories.

A granddaughter was devastated when her deceased grandmother’s tattered cookbook was thrown out by a relative cleaning the house after the funeral. As a teenager, the granddaughter had spent many hours learning to cook with her grandmother. She would have treasured the cookbook with her grandmother’s handwritten recipes. But the family had not talked about memory anchors, so there was no record to inform the helpful relative that the cookbook was of value to someone.

Consider these tips for transferring valued property.

  • Make no assumption about what someone else will value or why. The value given to certain objects may change as an individual moves from one stage of life to the next. One mother was surprised when three of her adult children listed the same Christmas tree ornament as having special memories for each of them. The mother still has the challenge of deciding who should receive the ornament. However, if she had not asked, she would have never known the ornament was important to her children. Parents, grandparents and other potential givers can begin the process by asking their loved ones to identify items that are important to them. The potential recipients should describe the item and explain why it is special to them.
  • The givers of non-titled property can also identify objects to transfer by writing a description of items and an explanation of why they are meaningful. At family gatherings, owners/givers can tell important stories about the treasured items. Sharing stories about special objects helps family members understand the item’s past and discover things they may not have known about family members. A somewhat battered watch with no story or history attached to it may not be appreciated by family members. But learning that the watch was bought in Europe by great-grandfather and brought across America to the Rocky Mountains can add value.
  • Family members can help preserve memories by talking to parents and grandparents about certain items and recording the stories. Sharing answers to the following questions can help tell the stories and preserve family legacies: What is the name and description of the item? When and how did you acquire it? When and how have you used it? Who else owned it before you? What memories do you have of the people who owned it before you? What other memories do you have of this item?
  • Most people want to be fair when dividing family heirlooms or other items. The problem is that “fair” can be interpreted in many ways. Someone may assume that a pile of the same number of items for each person is fair. But if there are no memory anchors in the pile, the items may be meaningless to the family member who gets the pile. Those who decide who will get what need to first decide if items will be given only to immediate family members or to extended family as well. If owners/givers decide to give to their children, grandchildren and in-laws, they need to decide the parameters for each group. To be fair, each child should be treated similarly to the other children. Grandchildren may be treated differently from children or in-laws, but should be treated similarly to the other grandchildren.
  • For a list of “who gets what” to be legal in Utah, the list must be mentioned in the will, but does not need to be included in the will. It should be dated and numbered “page 1 of 10, page 2 of 10,” etc. The list should say: “To my family, heirs and executor: This is the list that I referred to in my last will and testament. Therefore, please distribute the items listed below to the persons I have named.” Sign and date the list. The list can be changed as often as the donor wants, but the new list should be given to the attorney and the old list destroyed.

Posted on 16 Aug 2006

Judy Harris
Family and Consumer Science Agent, Utah County

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