6 Steps for Disbursing “Stuff” While Preserving Family Relationships
One of the most difficult and emotional tasks a family faces whether
because of a move or the death of loved one, is distributing the family
possessions. If one person wants an item – no problem. But when more
than one family member wants something, things can get very unpleasant
very fast! Sadly, too many families find they\’ve accomplished the task
but, in the process, create long-term, deeply held resentment which can
destroy family relationships.
How can you disburse family possessions in a way that preserves the
future and the past? By being pro-active and making 6 preliminary
decisions before any action is taken.
1) Decide who gets to make the preliminary decisions!
Before throwing open the door like an after Christmas sale, start
by creating a “core” group of people who to make the preliminary
decisions. Who should be included? While there\’s no right or wrong
answer, hopefully your aging loved one can still be involved – although
that\’s not always the case. In addition, too many people involved in
the preliminary planning will derail the process. Therefore, I strongly
recommend keeping the core group as small as possible. Having said
that, however, I also recommend including all members of a generation.
For example, if some siblings are going to be in the core group, then
ask all of the siblings (distant sibs can “attend” by phone). They may
opt out but at least they will have been asked.
Once this core group has been established . . .
2) Set some ground rules
Often family members are so “comfortable” each other that they
forget to be as courteous to their family as they are with friends or
even strangers. Establishing ground rules up front such as how everyone
will treat each other, will help to avoid anyone feeling as if they\’re
being “punished” should issues have to be addressed later on. For
• That you will be honest and considerate with each other
• That everyone will be allow to
have a say and will be completely heard before a decision is made
• That individual group members won\’t make any alliances or “secret pacts”
3) Agree on what is important to the group
Agree on what is important and get a commitment from everyone
that everything the group does and every decision the group makes will
be based on the answer.
• To preserve and maintain family relationships (between sibs and generations)
• To preserve and maintain family history, memories, and traditions.
• To preserve the family
reputation & privacy (personal information about your family that
you don\’t want aired in public)
• To share knowledge &
experience with future generations (such as sewing or woodworking)
4) Agree what “fair” means
When asked “what\’s important”, most families will say they just
want everything to be “fair”. Fair is good but “fair” usually means
different things to different people. So, based on the previous answer,
determine what “fair” means.
For example, when it comes to dividing up family possessions, does fair
mean equal? Equal what? Equal number of items? Equal dollar value?
Equal emotional value? Should the person who put in more caregiver time
get preferential treatment? Should the person who put in more money get
preferential treatment? Should the oldest choose first? Should spouses,
steps, grandchildren, partners, significant others, etc. get an equal
share? Any share?
Again, there\’s no right or wrong answer as long as the core group
agrees. This may take some negotiation but it\’s important that you all
agree before proceeding.
5) Agree on how the items will be divided up
There are lots of different ways to divide up possessions that
are both fair and fun. For example, give each person an equal amount of
“play” money and let them “bid” what they want. When they\’re out of
“money”, they\’re out of the game! Or draw names out of a hat and let
each person select an item they want in the order their name was drawn.
Once everyone has drawn once, put the names back into the hat and draw
again and so on.
6) Agree on how disputes will be settled
Ideally, because of the previous steps, disputes will be at a
minimum. However, you\’ll want to determine up front how the group will
settle disputes . . . just in case! Whether you decide for example, to
draw straws, pull a name out of a hat, do rock/paper/scissors, this is
the area where “what\’s important” to the group will be critically
The preliminary work can take some time, and many family members –
especially those who are close – think this preliminary planning isn\’t
necessary. However, if “what is important” is to preserve and maintain
family relationships, then the more time you spend on these 6
preliminary steps now, the more likely it will be that you will have as
good – if not better – relationships in the future.
Finally, don\’t put off this preliminary planning because there\’s no
need now. Remember. . . the more you can do now, the less there is to