Everyone remembers to list their house and car when drawing up their last will and testament.  But what about Mom’s painting, or Dad’s quirky Christmas tie, or the chipped porcelain cake plate that came from “the old country” four generations back?

Value is a subjective term when it comes to heirlooms.  You may want to rethink the list of possessions you plan to bequeath to children, grandchildren and other relatives and friends, to include items that could hold tremendous sentimental value for them.

Sadly, forgetting these items can undermine even the most careful inheritance plans and unnecessarily drag out the probate process.

Many a family rift is rooted in misunderstandings over who claimed a trinket that wasn't even mentioned in a will.  Look no further than comedian Robin Williams' family: sure, there was dispute over valuables and money, but Williams' widow and children also fought viciously over possessions that carried little more than sentimental value.

Don’t be surprised by sentiment

Williams may have predicted that those rainbow suspenders he wore in TVs “Mork and Mindy” would be viewed as a valuable estate asset – think of offers from TV memorabilia collectors.  Yet, would he have given the same level of significance to the tuxedo he wore on the day he and wife Susan Schneider were wed?  Maybe not.  Schneider apparently attached a great deal of sentimental value to the suit and she contested terms in Williams' will that left it and other personal possessions to his children.

Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr.'s children fought over who should get their father's Bible.  Beyond serving as the preacher's personal moral touchstone, President Barack Obama had used the book – and signed it – when he was sworn into his second term in office.

Less known are the everyday stories of tussles over the possessions of a loved one who dies, whether it's a set of dishes, a child's painting or other object with little to no value beyond the nostalgia it prompts in the recipient.  One set of adult children even quarreled over who would get their parents' Tupperware.

“We all have personal items that are important or precious to us or to those that are associated with us.  In estate planning, personal items are often ignored, yet they may cause some of the most significant emotions and conflicts.  This is because the collection of family photos or the heirloom that belonged to our great-grandparents is often of more emotional significance than a piece of land, the barn, or tractor,” wrote William R.  Taylor.

Taylor, a retired senior educator with the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Extension Service, said that it's easier to appraise titled property and develop a fair division of that property than it is to parcel out family heirlooms.  He makes the important point that future family relationships can suffer as a result of failing to address heirlooms in a will.

“We sometimes assume that our personal items are not worth planning their passing, even though they were important to us and they may be a significant source of memories or comfort to those we leave behind,” Taylor wrote.

How do I choose who gets the chipped cake plate?

Before you make decisions about passing on personal property, you will want to complete an inventory of possessions that includes any potential heirlooms and anything publicly displayed in the house.

Among possible items that Taylor said could hold significance to loved ones and which may be considered as additions to a list of bequests:

  • Artwork and photos
  • Antiques
  • Distinctive clothing and personal effects
  • Gifts and souvenirs
  • Toys
  • Musical instruments

Then, recommends journalist David A.  Keeps, adult children and their parents should have forthright conversations about how personal property will be distributed in an estate.  Don't expect these talks to be easy or free of emotion.  For many people, talking about how parents' possessions will be distributed is tantamount to wishing them gone.  Telling your aging mother that you'd really like to inherit her dining room set...  that would sound greedy and tacky, right?

Not at all, claims Star Tribune reporter John Ewoldt.  Making a will with a clearly outlined plan for property disposition could save your family a wrenching experience.  And Ewoldt notes that more and more of us will be confronting this issue.

“As the nation's 76 million baby boomers age, more families are being faced with how to divide personal belongings.  Adding to the challenge: There are more family members in the mix because of changing family dynamics, most often because of divorce,” Ewoldt says.

So, don't put off difficult conversations.  Just as you wouldn't want to die intestate, you don't want to leave the equitable distribution of your treasures to chance.  If conversations get tense – maybe several people in your family covet the same precious piece – Taylor's advice includes drawing straws for such items or holding an 'auction' in which family members get to 'buy' items using play money that was fairly distributed at the start of the auction.  

Not everyone will be perfectly happy, and that’s all right, as long as everyone agrees to live with the outcome and not hold a grudge.