Guide to Estate Planning: How to Plan for Personal Belongings

Death is a natural part of life, but one we often don’t feel comfortable discussing. No one wants to think about their own death or the death of a loved one.

But when a loved one passes, and it’s time to go through their belongings, conflict can come up between family members who each have different memories and sentimental value tied up in their possessions. Talking to your family now about what things they’d like to have might be uncomfortable, but it can help to avoid conflict in the future.

Even if you’re not considering moving or downsizing in the near future, going through your legacy of possessions now will better prepare you for when the time comes to downsize and do double duty as part of your estate planning. You could do this as a family or enlist the help of compassionate home organizers to help you with the process.

Types of belongings

When you think of estate planning, most people think about the big things — house, investments, retirement savings RRSPs and RRIFs, the family business,  car, the cottage or other vacation properties, and insurance.. Making decisions about titled property (the family home, cottage, investments and business) is one of the essential factors in estate planning, but personal possessions, or non-titled property, are often written off as unimportant or something that can be decided later.

The decisions surrounding personal possessions are often far more emotionally charged than titled property. These kinds of items can include:

  • Furniture
  • China and crystal
  • Pets
  • Collections
  • Books
  • Family photographs and documents
  • Jewelry
  • Tools
  • Toys
  • Art

While these kinds of personal items may have some monetary worth, they are often primarily cherished for their sentimental value, the story behind them, or how that item connected you to your loved one.

How To Get the Conversation Started

A recent survey shows 62 per cent of Canadians do not have a will, and nearly 12 per cent have an out-of-date will. And of those who do have updated wills, many haven’t addressed what should happen to their personal property, which can leave family members flying blind, not knowing what the deceased would have wanted and setting the family up for conflict when emotions are raw.

Whether you’re the parent discussing with your children, or the child trying to broach the subject with your parents (or any other configuration of family or loved ones), estate planning is a challenging subject to handle. Some tips for talking about inheritance include:

  • Be clear about your reasons for bringing up the issue, and also be sure to not jump to conclusions about other people’s motives, whether they are givers or receivers.
  • Respect the fact that some people may not be ready or able to face their own, or a loved one’s death.
  • If there are natural opportunities to talk, use them. If a friend or relative is dealing with transferring personal possessions when someone moves or dies, ask your loved ones what they would do or want if they were in that situation.
  • Keep in mind that different family members will have different feelings and opinions. Focus conversations on discovering where people agree and disagree.
  • Books are a good source of information about the process and managing emotions. Utilize resources like books about downsizing, decluttering, and general estate planning to help guide your process.
Credit: Freepik via Freepik

How to Decide

Planning helps ensure non-titled property decisions will better reflect your wishes. If you don’t make decisions or leave instructions, it’s the role of an Executor to decide what happens, but how do you actually make these decisions?

As outlined in the “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” resources, research has identified some key factors to keep in mind when planning for the transfer of your belongings. These are also helpful when working with family members or legal representatives to plan the transfer of belongings of someone who has already died:

  • Always keep in mind the sensitivity involved in transferring non-titled property.
  • Decide what is “fair” in the context of your family, and understand that “fair” might not mean the same to all members of the family.
  • Understand that belongings have different meanings for different individuals. Asking others to identify items with special meaning helps minimize inaccurate assumptions about who should get what. Not everyone will find the same things meaningful.
  • Consider potential distribution options and consequences. Determine what options will help accomplish your goals and make sense for your situation, such as gifting, selling, or donating.
  • Come up with ideas for how to deal with conflicts before they arise. Unresolved family issues can often resurface during inheritance discussions. Be sure to listen for feelings and emotions, and determine if you can agree to disagree if conflicts arise.

While communicating your wishes with your family is essential, you might also want to put your wishes in writing. This way, you can ensure your wishes will be known and carried out by estate executors and surviving family members.

Secret File

There may be items you cherish that are personal and of a sensitive nature, such as diaries, past love letters, private memorabilia, and other things you don’t want your loved ones to see during your lifetime. This is where a secret file comes in.

A secret file is where you put anything you don’t want family members to see. Some people decide to destroy their secret file before they pass away to avoid causing their family any potential discomfort of seeing its contents. Others leave instructions to destroy posthumously.

Some view a secret file differently, however, and choose to put personal possessions they want their family to have inside their secret file as a way of highlighting the contents’ importance.

How We Can Help

When it comes to planning for the transfer of personal property, families will often use a combination of these methods to decide on a fair system of distributing important possessions, but having an impartial third party involved can be helpful. Meet with NEATSPACES for a complimentary, in-home consultation, and together we’ll discuss your goals and work out how best to achieve your objectives.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information about NEATSPACES’ downsizing, organizing, and estate cleaning services.

For downsizing, moving and organizing services in the Greater Toronto Area contact us today!