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Lawyers, estate planners and families eager to avoid the emotional and financial toll of a pitched battle over Mom's old recipe tin and Dad's fly-fishing equipment have come up with some ingenious ways of divvying up family possessions without going to court.
PICKING HEIRLOOMS OUT OF A HAT Each heir chooses one item that holds equal value for everyone in the group to put in the "pot." If there are three heirs, for instance, there will be a total of three items. A group of heirlooms might include Mom's old chifforobe, Dad's tools and an old photo album--as long as the heirs agree that they would be satisfied with whichever item they end up with. The item is written on a slip of paper and tossed into a hat. Each person then chooses a slip of paper, "winning" the designated item--which can then be traded for another if someone else will swap. Heirs are free to say no to trades by agreeing in advance that they will accept whatever they have selected from the hat.
DRAWING LOTS Heirs gather items of relatively equal value--for example, all items in the home with an appraised value of $800 to $1,000. Then each heir draws a number out of a hat. The person drawing No. 1 gets first pick. Each heir in turn chooses something from the group. After the first round of picks, the routine starts again, with the person who drew No. 2 picking first, and so on. The total number of items has to be divisible by the number of heirs--for instance, if there are three heirs, the number of heirlooms should be a multiple of three.
MINI-AUCTION Any disputed items will be bid upon by family members, with the money raised going into the estate to be divided equally by everyone. The person who ends up buying the item will receive a portion of the bid price back when the money is divided among the group. Estate lawyers say auctions are a way for heirs to realize what they are willing to pay to secure a precious heirloom. The problem is that they do tend to reward those heirs who can afford to receive less cash.
PUBLIC AUCTION An appraiser and auctioneer can be paid by the estate to assess and sell any unwanted or disputed items at a public auction. Family members are welcome to bid along with the public for their heirlooms, with all profits going to the estate.
Knowing how often heirs fight over family possessions, estate lawyers frequently ask clients to write into a will a line intended to assist the family when the time comes to divide the effects, either suggesting a specific method of disbursing them or offering an airtight incentive to work things out amicably. "You can say in your will, 'In case there is any conflict with dividing the personal property, it should be arbitrated by so-and-so'--the executor, for instance. You don't have to get overly complicated, but you do need to try and anticipate how intense things might get," says Denis Clifford, author of Plan Your Estate--Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Protect Your Loved Ones.