The Rules of Stuff

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He had adult children from his first marriage. He and his second wife had a great marriage for fifteen years. She was in her 70s when he suddenly died. Very sad. 

Even sadder: when she returned home from the funeral, she found his children had backed their cars up to the house, opened the trunks, and were busy taking things out of the house to take home.

So the First Rule of Stuff: leave it alone.  Nobody should touch what the dead person owned because legally, you can’t.  It all belongs to the executor or administrator and they may not even know it yet. Even if you were promised something (“I want you to have this when I die”),  legally, you can’t take it. 

And if you’re the executor, change the locks on the door, if you must, because you have a duty to protect the assets.

A corollary of the first rule of stuff: don’t take anything off the wall. Isn’t it obvious when there’s a big rectangle on the wall where something had to have been hanging and it’s not hanging there any more.  The void on the wall speaks volumes of someone’s crassness and bad taste.

The Second Rule of Stuff: get rid of it. 

If you throw something out that belonged to your father, you’re not throwing out your father. And if it’s an ugly thing that your father once owned, well, your father is not that ugly thing. 

Don’t want to get rid of Stuff? Then be sensible in your documents.  

Here’s an example not being sensible.  You’re not being benevolent if you write:  “If my spouse is gone, my children can divide up everything I own as they see fit.” 

That doesn’t work because nine times out of ten,  they won’t see fit. In fact, they will likely have fits. (Listen, we’ve been there and done that, and there is precious little that your heirs won’t fight for.  Maybe the old sofa.)

Close, but almost as futile: “Round-robin; each child draws a number from a hat, to decide who goes first.  Then each child gets a turn, and can select one thing.  Then the next child selects one thing.  And on and on, until there’s nothing left except unwanted stuff.

What’s wrong with this? Well, the first child is not foolish enough to think “I’m going to take something really big.” Like the car, the breakfront, the silver tea set.  Not when there’s something tiny sitting there . . . like the 5-carat diamond ring. 

What about getting appraisals of everything and leaving things equally as to value? Good luck getting things appraised for a reasonable fee and in a reasonable time. 

An alternative: write a letter bequeathing particular things of sentimental value to particular people. You get decide who gets which heirlooms, pieces of jewelry, artwork, etc. And if the letter is mentioned in your will but is not actually in it, you can change who-gets-what at any time, sans notary or witness. 

Then hopefully, your executor will supervise a peaceful disposition of everything else.  

You can also put a timebomb in place: require your executor or trustee to sell everything that remains 30 days after your death at a garage sale, and whatever doesn’t get sold gets donated to charity or gets thrown out.  (Same rule if you never get around to writing that letter.)

Want to be inventive? Try an auction.  Your will can provide that everyone on your list – you pick ‘em – gets 1,000 points. Your will also says that each person on your list gets to decide what they’d like to bid on, up to all 1,000 points.  Example: someone bids 350 points for that antique dresser. Someone bids 700 points for your good china.  Someone sentimental about the tea sets or the moustache cups? Bid all 1,000 points for them.

Everyone’s bids go into a sealed envelope and to the executor by a deadline. And on the deadline, the executor opens the envelope, and distributes what’s been bid on to whomever bid the most for it.  

And everything else: the executor must have that garage sale or donate the rest to charity, or throw it out. 

The people you’ve named will live happily ever after. So will your memory.


George practices in Sandy Springs and Big Canoe, and is also Adjunct Professor in Emory Law School’s Center for Transactional Law. Questions are welcome; reach him at or on Facebook. He also cautions that what’s above is not legal advice, and you should seek professional advice before doing or not doing something based on this material.