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Avoid family feuds when you’re gone – sort out your chattels now

What do Shakespeare’s ‘second best bed’, Beatrix Potter’s piano and Peter Cook’s tiffany lamp all have in common?

The answer is they were all personal possessions, otherwise known as chattels, listed in the Wills of these famous people and left specifically to particular loved ones.

Making it clear in your Will, or an accompanying letter of wishes, exactly who gets what of your notable personal possessions when you die is one way of avoiding upset for those left behind.

But sadly, more often, things are left vague and the issue then becomes a divisive one with feuds developing over not just family heirlooms but items of sentimental value too.

‘Bitter feuds and animosity’

The Times journalist, Sebastian Cresswell-Turner, recently wrote about how the nightmare of his father dying without a Will was a secondary concern to the boxes of papers and possessions he left behind and how to divide everything fairly between him and his three siblings.

“It was clear that most of the chattels would have to go to auction,” he wrote. “But with no Will or statement of wishes, how was I to share out the remaining pieces, some of them quite nice? This was a minefield, especially since various old tensions now resurfaced between me and one of my brothers, whom I had not seen or spoken to for five years before my father’s death.

“Nor are similar situations uncommon. Even when there is a Will, only a few of the better chattels are allocated to named persons. The rest are up for grabs and I have heard stories of how, following the death of a parent, one of the siblings has gained entry to the unoccupied house and ransacked it. Bitter feuds and animosity are the result.”

So, what exactly is a chattel?

In current law, chattels are defined as ‘tangible movable property’ so essentially household contents and personal possessions like jewellery, furniture, paintings and photographs, computers, phones and cameras, books, china and music collections as well as cars and even pets.

Although chattels usually form just a small part of the overall value of an estate when someone dies, the sentimental value of items can be huge causing rows and upset between siblings particularly if one feels they were ‘promised’ something which another now wants.

How to avoid problems

Have regular, open, full family discussions about personal possessions you know have sentimental value and be explicit, for example, about who you would like to have your wedding ring, your CD collection, your old photo albums, and so on.

Obviously, the best way is to be clear in your Will, or more usually in a carefully worded letter or statement of wishes, outlining which beneficiaries get what or in which order beneficiaries should choose the chattels they want. For example the oldest sibling first and youngest last with this reversed for the next round of choices.

It’s also a good idea to make a list of items. This has two benefits. Firstly, you can update it and change it as necessary over the years and secondly, it means the executors of your Will can be seen by any beneficiaries to be following clear instructions about which item goes to who, rather than using their own discretion.

Other important points to remember about a letter of wishes when it comes to chattels include:

  • Although not legally binding, it is a flexible document which can be changed or replaced as you wish;
  • You can write different letters to different family members and these do not have to be disclosed to the entire family;
  • Keep it where it can be found in the event of your death and ideally with your Will.

It’s also worth remembering that on death, chattels form part of your taxable estate and their value needs to be returned for Inheritance Tax purposes.

For more help about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Wills Probate and Mental Capacity team.

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