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Bequests: Benefit or Burden?

Last month I visited an 83-year-old, still-healthy friend whom I have known since the late 1970s. We met when I worked as an attorney at Legal Services in Indiana, and she occasionally asks my advice. This time she had questions about her bequests (property or money that you promise to give another person or organization upon your death).

As we sat in her kitchen having breakfast, she mentioned she was giving her car to Habitat for Humanity. Surprised, I gently remarked that I did not realize they wanted vehicles. “I don’t know if they do, but I like that organization,” she replied. “OK. Let’s see how this might work.”

It is reasonable to want to give our possessions to people or organizations whom we believe want and value them or whose mission we support.

Based on my experience, I enumerated likely steps. An authorized Habitat representative would need to meet the executor (of her estate) at the motor vehicle office. There would be a fee for a new title, for registration, perhaps for new tags, for an inspection (if the state requires inspection) and for insurance. All this assumes the car is in good, road-worthy condition. In summary, Habitat would be paying for her ‘gift’. And that is IF Habitat wants the vehicle.

I was not surprised when she said, “I didn’t think of all that.” She decided to call Habitat’s local office and ask if they were interested in the vehicle. If not, she'd make other arrangements.

That issue settled, she inquired, “What do you think of my ideas for distributing my furniture, paintings, prints, sculpture?”

Judy had put sticky notes on certain pieces, indicating the persons she wished to receive those pieces after her death. A large breakfront was to be returned to its owner, who had taken it out of storage for Judy’s temporary use. Sculptures were to be returned to their creator. Her mother’s needlework was to be offered first to her siblings and their families.

However, Judy’s current will directs that “all furniture and household items” go to one named person; let us call her Mary. And yes, Mary is not one of these other recipients.

Can you see the potential for personal and legal squabbles?

The breakfront is clearly “furniture”. By the language of the will, it would transfer to Mary, rather than to its owner. Sculpture may be interpreted as “household items,” as might the needlework.

Judy might trust Mary to ‘do the right thing’ and set aside those items which have notes and names attached. What if Mary wants those items, or some of them, especially the valuable breakfront? What if some of those sticky notes become unstuck? What if Mary is unable or unwilling to perform as executor and someone else is appointed in her stead?

It is far better that Judy—and anyone—offer clear instructions to document her intentions. A written list of specific items and their named future owners can be incorporated easily in a will or placed in a codicil (an addition or supplement that explains, modifies, or revokes a will or part of one). An executor clearly knows to distribute certain items to named individuals, Mary receives “the remainder”, and most importantly Judy’s choices are honored.

Additional suggestions for dispensing and disposing of personal possessions as well as additional end of life activities are included in Chapter 7 of my book, The Courage to Care: Being Fully Present with the Dying, now available wherever books are sold.

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