Updated: May 23, 2020
As some of you baby boomers downsize, or worse, are faced with liquidating your parent’s estate, several challenges arise and most of them are family. One of my favorite auction and estate appraiser adages is “It’s easier to split money, than it is stuff.” I have seen many a family fight over things that would shock and amaze you.
It was Hellertown, Pennsylvania. A 47-year-old brother and 42-year-old sister met with their individual lawyers in their deceased mother’s very modest home. Enter me, a green auctioneer and appraiser, asked by the administrator of the will to oversee a fair and equitable split of a few of the items the siblings were in disagreement over. It sounded simple. After all, there was not much in the house.
It seemed civil, but odd, and then a nerve was touched. I valued a Waterford Crystal pitcher at $300. Sis thought it was priceless and the brother wanted it. A few choice words came and then a fist that sent sister to the ground like they were four-year olds. I was speechless. The two attorneys were as well. We witnessed a physical assault over a pitcher. I broke up the fight by threatening to smash it. I explained they could each go to Macy’s to buy one. This was not a rare family heirloom. It still had the label on it. I couldn’t leave fast enough. I thought, “Crazy.” I never thought I’d see anything like that again.
But fast forward many years, and now I have seen most all of it, and unfortunately, it is something we see often. I remember few of them by my special names. “The Fighting Sisters” who would argue, fight, micro-manage and cry every time I was at the house, and all over just plain old stuff. “The Evil Twins” lived on opposite sides of the country for good reason. These two identical twins met at mom’s estate, having not spoken in 10 years, and after that process, I bet they won’t speak again. “The Sister-in-Laws Have Claws.” Two peaceful, loving brothers brought their better halves to the property to split and I wanted to split! The boys didn’t care about “the stuff,” but their wives did.
I tell you these stories to help prepare, not scare you. By selling your personal collections while you still have a say, or by simply asking your kids what they want, you can diffuse a future issue.
If you’re an heir, before you close your eyes and imagine punching your brother or wrestling your sister-in-law, remember – it’s only stuff. If you’re concerned that someone is taking more than his or her fair share, have a third party professional evaluate the items to ensure everything will be equitable. Try to keep your emotions under control. It’s hard to do, but it’s the right thing.