Be Specific About Personal Effects

It’s Ours- Now What!

Recently I read something in the news that, as an estate planning attorney, caught my attention and that I would like to share with you.  Actress Audrey Hepburn’s two sons are apparently fighting in court over the distribution of her memorabilia and other personal items. Why is this newsworthy?  Well it is newsworthy because we are talking about the famous actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn and because she passed away 22 years ago!  This situation showcases something I constantly remind my estate planning clients: Leaving your personal effects in your will or trust to be divided equally is not a good idea!

We all know Audrey Hepburn for her elegant demeanor, her movies, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and her humanitarian efforts on behalf of children’s rights all over the world.  She passed away in 1993 and was survived by two sons.   According to the news reports, a storage locker in Los Angeles full of her personal items including her clothing, movie posters, awards etc. was left to her two sons to be divided equally between them.  Therein lies the problem.  The two sons (now ages 45 and 54) cannot agree about how the property in storage should be divided amongst them.  So, the items are sitting in storage and gathering dust while the matter is now before the courts to be resolved by a judge or jury.  At the end of the day, the property will be divided but after a long, stressful and costly process that could have been avoided.

What is the lesson in all this?  It is preferable not to leave your personal effects to a group of people and ask them to divide and distribute them amongst themselves as they wish.  Even though your personal effects may not be worth millions like Ms. Hepburn’s, the more specific you are about who gets what, the easier it will be for your loved ones.  You can give specific gifts and, if you like, leave a written explanation so that your intent is clearly stated and understood.  You can have one person (your executor or trustee) decide who gets what and distribute the personal assets that way.  You can set up a system where, under the supervision of the trustee or executor, each beneficiary can take a turn picking an item until all items are handed out.  You can be as creative as you like.  What you want to avoid is ambiguity that can cause disputes and hurt feelings.

How have you handled this aspect of your planning?  Have you provided specific instructions about your personal effects?  Sometimes we may think that it is easier to not make these decisions and to let our loved ones figure it out.  Or we don’t want to think about it and procrastinate and leave it as something to take care of later and put it on our “to do” list.  The Audrey Hepburn case is a lesson to us all about taking proactive steps to be as clear as possible in our estate plans about who gets what and not leaving it to our loved ones to figure it out. 

Gita K. Nassiri | Attorney-at-Law/ CPA
2794 Gateway Road, Suite 101
Carlsbad, CA 92009