Friday, January 29, 2010

What happens to all that stuff in grandma's house?

Grandma is gone. The lawyer is working on how to sell her house and collect the money she had in her retirement account. There are a lot of questions about how to deal with all the stuff in her house but the lawyer doesn't seem to want to answer those questions. Why is that? What is a family supposed to do?

We lawyers call grandma's stuff "personal property." Personal property 
means her dishes, her furniture, her old car, and that collection of ceramic figurines she was so proud of. Lawyers and judges do not want to deal with grandma's stuff. We want the personal property to go away--quietly with no fighting or bickering.

Despite hating it we do hear about it. We hear about it a lot.

The reason lawyers and judges don't want to hear about personal property is because (1) it is always at the center of family battles, and (2) it is seldom worth any money. Often when a parent dies, the children go temporarily crazy. Sibling rivalries that have lain dormant for years spring up as if the parties were all ten years old again. These long-simmering disputes usually make an innocent hunk of personal property the centerpiece. 

"I don't care what the will says," one of the children proclaims, "mother always wanted me to have the toilet plunger and after putting up with my brothers and sisters all these years, I deserve it." To the lawyer, these disputes sound crazy. Elder law and probate lawyers charge over two hundred dollars an hour. Simply talking about personal property with a lawyer costs more than the property is worth. The family tells me it is not about the money; it is about fairness. No it isn't. It is about some deep seated family dysfunction that nobody understands except the family members. Lawyers don't get it; judges don't get it. We don't want to talk about it because we have no idea what the clients are talking about and why they care.
Sometimes the family is not fighting but has gone all money-eyed on the theory that mother's collection of Swedish-Korean wind chimes has to be worth at least a hundred thousand dollars. I have overseen the sale of a lot of personal property. I have learned to hate cars, jewely and collections. Cars are only valuable if you don't have one and need to go somewhere. If you have to sell grandma's car, hope for low low blue book and thank your lucky stars if you can sell it at all. Mother's jewelry may be insured for a bundle, but you can guarantee that nobody wants to buy it. Give it to the daughters and forget it. A collection is a side effect of having a hobby. The only people who make money off collecting are the people who write those collectors guides--the ones with the ridiculously high values that no one  actually pays. Collections are not investments; don't pretend that they are. 

When I file a probate petition, I have to file an inventory of the property that belonged to the deceased. The personal representative appointed in the will often looks at me incredulously and says, "But mother's house is packed from floor to ceiling with stuff. How can I inventory all that?" I tell him or her to walk through the house, wave an arm at all the stuff and say,"personal property, five hundred dollars." I put that in the inventory and no one complains unless it is somebody  in the family going wacko over the car, the jewelry or the figurine collection. Good families get together, split up what they want and donate the rest. Bad families fight and go to court over it.

Don't get me wrong. I love stuff. I buy nice stuff and don't want to lose it. The fact is, however, that once I have put my grubby hands on the stuff, it is not worth much any more. If I keep it a long time, it is worth even less. Keeping it a very very long time and calling it an heirloom doesn't change that.
So what happens to grandma's stuff? In most cases, whatever the family decides. A judge will decide if you insist, but it will be expensive and the judge will not be happy about being made to do it. You do not want decisions about your grandma's stuff being made by an grumpy judge. Follow your lawyers advice; make the personal property disappear. If you family members don't bring up where it went, nobody else will either.


  1. Thank you for this post! I've been looking everywhere on the internet for just this thing, and you're right - no one wants to talk about it. Now I see why! Thanks, it helped.

  2. Conservator of my mother had a large dumpster placed in my parent's driveway and threw away the contents of a 5 bedroom home they lived in for over 40 years. Birth certificates, historical documents and family photos, pictures of my deceased father and brother, great-grandmother's Bavarian China, furniture, and clothes. Conservator even managed to give to charity for a write-off, a fairly new vehicle with less than 5,000 miles, registered to my son in another state that he parks in my parent's driveway while he is in college. And the court always says "too bad" to the family members. At least that is what a California Superior Court Judge said to me. "Conserving Frances"