As a fiduciary (whether as a trustee or personal representative of a will) you are responsible for the assets of the estate and one of your initial responsibilities is to identify, collect and preserve the estate's assets. You may wish to consider changing the locks on a residence and ensuring valuable items are inventoried and secured immediately. Determine whether the assets are adequately insured in the event of loss by fire or theft prior to distribution.
Start with a Good Inventory
Inventory the assets carefully before family members begin to remove items. If you need assistance with this, estate organizers can help. Visit www.estatemaintenance.blogspot.com to learn more about estate maintenance and organization.
Carefully Check for Legal Documents that Might Contain Instructions for Gifting of Certain Items
Some states, like Michigan, allow for an individual to make a list of personal items they'd like to give to others which is separate from their Last Will & Testament or Trust Agreement. If properly done, this list can be legally binding - so it's important to ensure that you have all the information that you need before promising an asset to anyone. Check safe deposit boxes, lock boxes, safes or other areas where your loved one may have kept important papers. Remember, in the event of duplicate lists, the most recently dated list will most likely be controlling, but always contact an attorney in the state where the estate is located if you have any questions about asset distribution.
Arrange for Appraisals of Certain Items
Some items may need to be appraised to ensure an equal distribution of assets or for other estate purposes. Ensure that all necessary appraisals are obtained in writing prior to making distributions of any assets.
Consider Hosting a Family Meeting to Determine Interest in Items Not Specifically Gifted
A family meeting may be a great place to start in some situations, but in others it may turn into a nightmare. Many wills or trust agreements contain provisions for handling disputes over personal property, check the appropriate documents for directions or consult with an attorney in the state where the estate is located.
A Neutral Third Party May Help Keep the Peace
If there are still disagreements over certain items, consider bringing in an estate or trust mediator to resolve the dispute. Mediation can help bring families back together by solving disputes without the added stress of resorting to a court process.
Additional resources provided by the author
Read "The Peacemaker" by Ken Sande for a biblical approach to conflict resolution.