By Mark E. Lewis, Law Offices of Mark E. Lewis & Associates

Minimalism, both as a concept and a lifestyle, has gained attention in recent years. People who were stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic went through their belongings and became more thoughtful about what they truly needed. While some say extreme minimalism isn’t a sustainable lifestyle in this country, others are pushing back and simplifying in every area possible.

This raises interesting considerations for estate planning. Almost every level of estate planning is burdened by decisions to be made regarding tangible personal property — what most of us would probably call “stuff.”

What Is It Really Worth?

Some of your stuff, which you believe to be valuable, may not be equally valued by those you leave it to. Conversely, heirs and beneficiaries who are bitter or who have bad motives can cling to tangible stuff and complicate the process of closing an estate for nominated executors and trustees. Dealing with the stuff someone leaves behind is burdensome and sometimes tricky for both the trustee or executor and the lawyers. It is helpful when clients take time to think about their stuff in the process of creating their estate plan.

We spend our hard-earned resources to acquire and then store our belongings, and we can often become more attached to them than is good for us. My office has seen clients delay good planning for their estates because they could not decide the “who, how, and where” of disposing of what they own. Then beneficiaries can end up fighting over the items that are in an estate, sometimes clouding good memories of the person they’ve lost or losing the opportunity to grieve for months or years after. Some clients try to think of everything, and specifically gift each and every one of their tangible assets. This can make the paperwork of the plan and the creation process slow and unnecessarily expensive.

So What Can We Do About Our Stuff?

One solution is to practice true minimalism — have very little to give away when you die! Another solution is to make specific gifts of certain items to certain people and instruct that the remainder be sold and the proceeds divided. Even the latter can create problems if beneficiaries complain about the manner in which the items are sold or their value determined. Although we try to give trustees and executors power to unilaterally determine the value of our tangible bequests, problems can still arise with a difficult beneficiary.

The best outcomes seem to come when our clients take the time to ask their beneficiaries which of their belongings they want so they can settle any disputes amongst themselves in advance. A similar practice is the “Post-it® note system” where you have your beneficiaries put a note on the items they want, and then direct those items to go to the person who marked them as bequests.

While not every area of stress can be completely eliminated when someone passes away, our estate plans always include clear options for clients to manage distributing their stuff. When no plan exists, or there is a sharp dispute amongst the beneficiaries, the court’s solution is usually a round-robin selection with a game of chance to establish the selection order. Of course, this leaves all of the beneficiaries dissatisfied, as opposed to just some.

Whether you’re a minimalist or you keep everything, it’s vital to those you leave behind to have an estate plan in place. Law Offices of Mark E. Lewis & Associates has been helping clients make plans for their unique personal circumstances (including what they own and who they want to have it) for nearly 30 years. It would be our honor to help you with your stuff!