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Settling a Family Estate Fairly and Without Rancor

Here is a suggested way to settle an estate. As the oldest in our family, this is the plan that I devised at the time of my mother’s death:

Step 1: Who

First, organize a meeting where only the children of the deceased, not the spouses, should attend. This keeps the number of voices to a minimum. Also, siblings have grown up together and have learned how to deal with each other much better than the spouses.

Step 2: Where

The meeting should take place somewhere quiet and private. We chose Mom’s kitchen table.

Step 3: List Everything

List all items. For example: piano, rifle, bedspread, etc. This takes time but it is very doable. Make a real effort to get everything. Go through each room, garage, etc.

Step 4: Price to sell

After the list is made, go back through it and establish a value. This value should be garage-sale prices. Everyone should be involved. Get consensus for the value. The value must be realistic: What would you pay for it if you found it for sale at a local garage sale? Do not price by estimating the replacement value. Write the determined price by each item.

Step 5: Flip a coin

Now go back down the list and add another column of who wants each item at the arrived-at price. If more than one person wants an item, flip a coin to decide. If more than two want an item, then flip odd man out. Again, write down who gets the item.

Step 6: Divide the total value

Now, make a separate list of all the items each individual has selected. Add the value of those items. Then it’s a simple accounting problem. Add the total value of the items to the cash from the estate. Divide the total with the cash and distribute an even amount (cash plus items) to each of the heirs.

Real Estate may need to be sold to do a proper division if the parents do not leave a will. If this is done, it should go in as part of the cash. Or it may be handled as one of the items of Step 4, if it’s not overpowering for the total cash.

November 2004