Jewelry, books, musical instruments — all of these can have special meaning, but how do you make sure your possessions are distributed according to your wishes after your death?
That is a question Harvey County Extension Agent Aaron Swank said many people avoid. Death is an emotional topic; talking about or planning for its inevitability is a difficult task.
Having conversations with family and friends about how your property should be divided up after you die can prevent conflicts, regrets, inaccurate assumptions or even a loss of your possessions.
"It's a lot easier to distribute personal possessions the way you want to do it if you plan before you pass on," Swank said while speaking to an audience at Bethel College's Life Enrichment series on March 6.
Some people choose to bestow special possessions before they die.
"Most owners want to know their possessions are going to someone who values it and finds it meaningful," Swank said.
While that process does ensure items are given to intended recipients, the gifts are sometimes refused, which can cause conflict in their relationship. The giver may feel hurt or rejected, while the recipient may wonder why a certain item is so important to them.
"The meaning of items is one thing families don't discuss and this results in all sorts of inaccurate assumptions," Swank said. "Take time to find out what items are special to people and why."
That is why it is so important to record the story or sentiment behind treasured possessions — so those to whom it is given understand and appreciate its significance.
For items that are not specifically designated to be given to an individual, selecting a process to divide things between several people can be tricky.
It is important for couples to talk to each other and decide whether they want to include adult children in a conversation about how their possessions will be distributed or just inform them how they wish it to be done.
In the process of giving out possessions, people often strive to protect family privacy, maintain relationships, be fair, preserve memories and contribute to society, Swank added.
Being fair can mean different things to different people — treating inheritors equally may not be perceived as fair if some have greater needs or have a history of contributing to the family.
Some families may experience conflict over unwritten traditions when it comes to dividing possessions such as letting the oldest child choose first, giving males everything in the garage or excluding children who have not married or had children from the process.
If the process of dividing possessions is perceived as fair, family members are more likely to accept less than optimum outcomes, Swank said. In contrast, if no process has been laid out in advance, family members with more dominant personalities may be perceived as getting more or taking things without giving quieter relatives a chance to speak.
"If you have a question, ask. If you have an issue with something, speak up," Swank said.
Writing a will is not legally required, but without one the state takes over the distribution of assets.
"Wills are important because, in a very real sense, they're your last chance to speak on this earth," said Joe Uhlman, associate at Adrian & Pankratz, P.A. "Everyone should have a will because it lets your loved ones know that you cared enough to use your last chance to speak taking care of them."
"If you want to make sure your last wishes are carried out in full, they need to be in writing," Swank said.
If you die without having a will, your closest relative will inherit your estate.
"In Kansas, if you have a surviving spouse as well as a descendant, each receive half of your estate," Swank said.
Verbal instructions regarding distribution of possessions, especially if only told to one person, are difficult to verify. Instead, it is recommended that people have a written list itemizing who should receive various items witnessed by a person who is not a beneficiary.
"It has to be referred to in the will. It has to be in the handwriting of the owner or signed by the owner and it has to be dated," Swank said.
Making a list separate from a will gives you a way to change the list as your items or the person for whom they are intended change without needing to amend your will.
Adding a line in your will instructing the executor to distribute your property equally is not practical nor without problems.
"It is literally impossible to divide one's possessions equally," Swank said.