It was 10:45 on a warm summer day. Outside a stately mansion, parked on either side of the front door, were two large moving vans. Inside, the two van drivers and their assistants were becoming increasingly confused and frustrated. They had a simple enough assignment: “Arrive at 9:00 to pack and load household goods for transport.” Now, at 10:45, only one couch and two chairs sat on the Mayflower van and a bedroom set and a TV on the Allied van, while two sets of moving men stood around two partially packed cartons. They were becoming increasingly frustrated with the drama before them. The other actors on the scene, two apparently well-educated couples and two lawyers — were heatedly negotiating about every single item to be packed.

Henry, the Allied van driver, later told me, “That was the worst I’ve seen. But, believe me, I’ve seen some real doozies. You wouldn’t believe the arguments some folks get into when they start dividing up their parents’ stuff. People go nuts over the craziest things.”

Death of parents. Division of property. The strains and stresses these put on surviving children! At a time of grief, even people committed to reducing their material possessions may desperately want Grandmother’s cracked teapot or Mother’s engagement ring. Even a casual inquiry among friends brings forth horror stories of damage done to families when they are dividing their parents’ or grandparents’ possessions.

Can we devise any guidelines that might help steer us into calmer scenarios? Perhaps, but only for people whose primary motive is to preserve family relationships. People whose main object is to “get the best deal,” or to redress what they believe were old imbalances, should not read on. Even people who clearly care more about their relationships than about possessions may find the going difficult. Dealing with items from one’s childhood can reawaken all sorts of long-forgotten jealousies, hurts, or desires.

My Family Grief Story

My father died in September, my mother the following February. My two sisters and I had to make decisions about property in the days immediately following Mother’s funeral, for two of us lived thousands of miles away. We went into this task with heavy hearts and frayed nerves, but also with the knowledge that nothing — no thing — was as important to us as maintaining good relationships.

My sisters and I survived the division of our family’s things. We went into the process knowing the horror stories and determined to keep our relationships intact. We worked hard, and we talked a lot. In the process, we tried to see both what were our major stumbling blocks and what helped us most to overcome them. After we each returned to our own homes, we talked with friends about their experiences. Here I want to share what we learned, hoping it will help others to think about this property division task ahead of time.

My first recommendation is to look hard for ways to delay giving up a parent’s home and possessions. Having to make decisions within a short time frame added greatly to our difficulty. Not only was each item more loaded with emotion, but abruptly cutting off all need to go back to Arizona — where our parents had lived for years, and where we and our families had vacationed for many years — added stress to dealing with deciding about material things and increased our sense of loss. We did fill one box with very personal things such as their writings, photo albums, and mementos to go through together at some later time. This allowed us to delay dealing with some of the most emotionally charged things, and it also gave us a future reunion to look forward to.

Remember To Allow for Grief

There are many agendas when families gather. This is true whether the occasion be a holiday celebration or a death. The more emotional the occasion, the more likely it is that needs will clash. The more fatigued or stressed people are, the more difficult will be their interactions.

Before thinking about how to divide things, think about grief. Even when death is expected and timely, there is a great sense of loss which hits each family member differently. If it is possible to postpone dealing with material things, this may lower the level of emotion. When one is first facing the loss of home and parents, each small item can seem indispensable.

Be clear about your priorities. If your first priority is to get specific items or your “fair share” of the estate, you will need different kinds of advice and possibly legal assistance. If, however, your strongest desire is to maintain or improve family relationships, we have gleaned a few ideas from our own experience and from hours of talking with others.

If, ahead of time, parents designate where things are to go, this can help greatly but only if it is done with everyone’s knowledge. Some of the worst scenarios we heard about came from parents telling more than one child or grandchild that they would be the one to get a particular item. In another case — although the mother had thought she had done a careful and equal division — when her notes were found after her death, each child felt her choices for the siblings showed she loved the others more.

Recommendations for a Peaceful Division of the Family Estate

Why does any of this matter? Why are we so involved with material things? First, some things are just what we might like to buy for ourselves, but either can’t or won’t purchase. This category is less troublesome than a second one: things that have an emotional history. Some are pieces of our childhood or that tie us into past family history: Father’s high chair, the tools Grandfather used. Others perhaps tie us to our children or grandchildren: the cradle Mother slept in may later hold a grandchild. Some seem to embody a moment of closeness with a parent, a special memory, or a family event. Try to give yourselves time to think and talk about the underlying meanings and memories. Although the mixing bowl may go into only one home, the image of Mother whipping egg whites for angel food cake can be held by everyone.

One family we talked with agreed ahead of time that if there were any items everyone really wanted, those could be shared. In the end, since they all really loved a pair of silver candlesticks that had been in their parents’ dining room, they decided that these should spend a year in each child’s home. Passing the candlesticks around has become a ritual, and each family gets special pleasure having them for a year and then taking or sending them to the next home.

In going through any household, there will not only be items everyone would want, but also many things that no one wants to keep. We quickly learned, however, that one person’s throwaway is another person’s treasure. My sisters and I devised a quick and painless way of doing an initial sorting. Each of the family members was given a batch of stick-on dots in a different color. As each of us went through a cupboard, closet, or drawer, we put a dot on anything we would like to have (and a dot marked with an H for anything we would give a home if no one else really wanted it). When we had finished going through a space, we put a dot on the outside.

Donating and Respecting Others

When everyone had finished going through a space, one of us could then put the unchosen items in the “donations pile.” Items with two or more dots went to the “decisions place,” and those that had merely one dot were ready to be packed. This device not only took care of a great deal of stuff with a minimum of discussion, but gave us individual tasks that could be done while one person felt like moving on and others needed a break. This would be a particularly useful technique in situations where family members are unable to schedule much time to work together.

It is most important to realize and accept that people have different rhythms for working. One needs more sleep, time alone, or a chance to grieve openly. Another is eager to work as quickly as possible. One does best by talking through everything; another prizes quiet. Some work best at dawn, others at midnight.

Tasks can be divided so that anyone can find something to do whenever they have energy and a free moment. Tasks that must be done together should be scheduled when everyone can manage adequately. One important task is to decide what needs to be done. If a family is dealing with all the things that must be done after a death and, in addition, is settling an estate, the number and variety of tasks is mind-boggling.

My sisters and I found salvation in a large yellow legal pad. We made tabs to mark a page for each of us, a page for each type of job, and a page for each person to whom we had to pass on various pieces of information. Then, whenever one of us was looking for something to do, we could just go to the pad. When a job had been completed, it could be checked off. At the end of our time together, we not only could see what still needed to be done, but to appreciate how much we had already accomplished.

What if More Than One Person Wants the Same Thing?

As for the actual dividing of possessions wanted by more than one person, that task calls for the most propitious of times. No matter how things are divided, there is a sense of loss. For the most part, what one really wants is not the thing itself but the whole — the home, the parents, the object and its surroundings. If there are two equally prized items, you can miss the one that goes elsewhere as much as you enjoy the one you keep.

We were fortunate that one sister insisted on our being honest about our feelings. She emphatically said, “I don’t want to have any one of us come back two years from now saying something we did felt unfair. I don’t want anything sticking in anyone’s craw.” Later this got shortened to, “Are there any craws here?” When someone felt uneasy about a particular round of division, we went back and did it over. When we all seemed to be getting overly touchy, we took a break.

With much to do in a limited time, taking a break may seem like a waste of time. But we decided early that having somewhat regular meals, some quiet time, and sleep were crucial. We tried to get away from the house together and to do things that we enjoyed even if for a very short time. A drive to see the sunset, a walk around the block together, a relaxed meal in a good restaurant helped more than extra work time for irritable workers.

No amount of planning can make the process of dividing a home painless, but thinking and talking about it beforehand will help. We, as the new older generation, can make a great gift to our own children by talking and planning with them about how possessions can best be dealt with.

Mere techniques do not take the place of underlying caring between family members. But techniques can be shared easily, and wise use of procedures that have helped others may help protect the family caring that is there. Further, in discussing ways of adapting techniques for one’s own use, more basic issues can be discussed. I feel that the greatest legacy my parents passed on to us was their strong sense of family and their clearly stated belief that no possessions are worth as much as family ties. Their love, and the love I share with my sisters and their families, make each of the things I inherited more valuable.