One of my favorite movie lines comes from “The Jerk,” a 1979 comedy that was Steve Martin’s first film.
“I don’t care about losing all the money. It’s losing all the stuff,” whines Bernadette Peters, playing the lead character’s girlfriend, in a memorable meow.
Which brings us this week to “stuff” and how it gets divvied up among families when parents die. It’s relatively easy to divide money.
But dividing up “the stuff” is a big deal as 76 million baby boomers head into their later years with a collection of valuables and memories.
David Landau of Potomac sent me an email after I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about creating a “Big Book,” a road map that tells your heirs what you own and where everything is, from pension forms to bank accounts to “the stuff.”
He wrote: “Years ago, dad invited my brother, sister and I to my parents’ house. When we arrived dad had laid out all of the household artwork, photos of furniture, books and other ‘tchotchkes’ into the living room.
“Then he gave each of us $2,000 in monopoly money and announced he would conduct an auction.
“If any of us wanted something of my parents after they were gone this gave us the opportunity to bid on it. Not only did the auction determine who got what, but my parents had a great time watching us bid on stuff that wasn’t worth $2 but had special meaning to us.
“I have had friends fight with siblings over their parents’ stuff — not the expensive stuff, but odds and ends that each child wanted.
“My dad avoided this problem brilliantly. Dad was the auctioneer and mom recorded the results.”
People accumulate a mountain of memories over a lifetime. A lot of it isn’t just the artwork, rugs, second home or sterling silver tea set. It’s the goofy Santa Claus savings bank you got from your great-aunt when you were still a twerp. Or the Japanese rifle and bayonet your uncle brought back from World War II. How about the worn copy of “Gone With the Wind?” The Hogarth engravings Mom bought from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh? The old family photos? Silver rosary beads? A set of Currier & Ives dishes?
But how to divide it up without going Corleone? Some distributions are actually hostile takeovers or home invasions, with one sibling pulling the moving van up to the back door, emptying the house to a giant sucking sound they can hear in the next state.
“As soon as Mom goes to a nursing home or hospice, or even before, her son Sam is headed into the house to start taking the things he wants,” said Tim Price, a lawyer practicing in wills and estates with Ethridge, Quinn in Rockville. “The best way to distribute your estate is while you are still alive.”
Price recommends a family meeting to clear the air while the parents are still alive, much like the one the Landaus had. Set a date. Have everyone present. And be transparent.
“Make sure your intentions are clear to all of your children,” Price said. “Do not be afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings. Make notes of the meeting, and place those notes with your will so it will be found when someone goes looking.” Better yet, include a map to the notes in the Big Book.
Grandchildren should speak up, as well. “If a child has an item they really want, they should tell Mom and Dad,” Price said. “It could be something that is the single item that brings positive, warm thoughts years from now.”
Some families break up the household in a very gentle way, over time, with a living elder distributing things quietly. My wife’s mother began distributing her jewelry and some other valuables to her daughters and daughters-in-law as she entered her 70s.
“When my grandmother stopped entertaining, she had a list, and each time a grandchild visited, she had a gift for that grandchild, said Paul Schervish, retired director at the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.
“When you would show up and visit her in her 90s, she would say, ‘This is for you.’ She had a collection of salt shakers. One of my sisters got three or four of them. I suspect cousins got others.”
My godmother sent me her Syracuse China while still in her 80s, all carefully bubble-wrapped. She gave me a rosary she had and some photos that were precious to her. My wife and I bring out the beautiful china every Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you don’t have the meeting before Mom and Dad die, you can hold one afterward. Price encourages survivors to set a date, meet at the house and divide up the goods.
“When it came to stuff in the house, first we divided special dishes and stuff in the china cabinet four ways. Then we had a lottery almost like Major League Baseball,” Schervish said. “The oldest got to choose first. Then the next oldest, then third and fourth. Then we reversed. Then we did 2, 3, 4, 1, and kept rotating it the same way.”
My wife was the executor of her parents’ estate, so she took charge. She distributed color-coded Post-its to put on items they wanted. Several items had multiple stickers. My wife refereed as the siblings took turns picking something. There were negotiations and some back-and-forth. At the end, my wife asked whether anyone felt treated unfairly or did not get something they really wanted.
Schervish said his family’s distribution was a peaceful process: “Sometimes your heart leads you to provide someone else in the family with something you wanted.”
Not all families are so peaceful. They require a referee or some sort of imposed discipline.
If you don’t want to hold a family meeting, “make a list if you want certain property to go to certain individuals,” Price said. “If not, expect a problem. After you pass away, there will be a problem.”
Whether married, widowed, divorced, single or part of a couple without kids, Price encourages people to think early about what happens to their personal stuff after they are gone. If you are headed to assisted living, take it as a sign that you should start planning.
People who have no apparent heirs can list charities or other organizations, designating every piece of art or artifact to a recipient.
Price has one client, still alive, who has a collection of autographs of prominent politicians and socialites.
“She has no family, so she made me a really long list of this photo of so-and-so signed by such-and-such, and this should go to this person or this museum,” he said.
When the client dies, Price said, he will hire an appraiser to see what the collection and its pieces are worth. But the client made it much easier by designating who gets what.
Things can get ugly when left to the children.
“A lot of times, you find older clients don’t want to make a list,” Price said. “They don’t want to insult their kids by trying to divvy up the property. Mom and Dad have faith the kids will do the right thing by each other, share and share alike. To be honest, more often than not that doesn’t happen.”
The consequences can be fraught.
Price recalled two heirs who tried to cheat a third, learning-disabled sibling out of money that the parents had left. Price successfully sued the older siblings to make sure that the youngest got his fair share and a chance to have a decent life.
Even the Landaus’ friendly family meeting had a little edge to it.
“My brother wanted a living room chair that had belonged to my grandparents,” David Landau recalled. “I knew my brother wanted that chair, so I purposely drove up the bidding. He said, ‘You aren’t playing fair.’ I said: ‘You are my younger brother. I never play fair.’ ”
Almost everything had little or no intrinsic value. A candy tray. A handmade hickory music box that his grandmother had brought from Russia around 1910. A 1950s hot plate that had never been opened or used. A drop-leaf table. A leucite statue.
Landau’s dad passed away a few weeks ago. The family resurrected the list and spent an afternoon reliving the fun of the auction on that long-ago afternoon — and appreciating their father’s inspired idea.
Landau can look to a Baltimore Colts bobblehead as a memento of the times his opera-loving, stamp-collecting dad took him to football games.
The bobblehead reminds him of those days with his dad, shivering in the cold, watching his beloved Colts in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. It now stands as a trophy in a living room decorated by his wife.
“I would have gone all-in to get that bobblehead,” Landau said. “It’s the only thing in the living room with my fingerprints on it.”