Mom Promised That to Me!

When my grandmother died, she left her entire estate to her eldest son, my Uncle Con. My father, the only other child, did not receive anything.

Leaving one and excluding the other would seem to create a situation ripe with ill will and bad feelings. On the contrary, my father was in full support of his mother's decision.

My uncle had been my grandmother's primary caregiver. My parents and I helped. But, my uncle and aunt bore the brunt of my grandmother's care, even during the difficult years when my grandmother's manipulation made your head spin. (During one hospitalization, my grandmother was prescribed an anti-depressant. The result changed my grandmother and, thankfully, our relationship with her.) My grandmother had expressed her desire for Uncle Con to receive her entire estate, including possessions and assets. After her death, my uncle and father calmly settled her estate.

We were lucky. The inheritance of possessions can become a game of power that can be used to settle old scores, reinforce favorites, dredge up old family disputes. Sometimes, the greatest disputes seem to happen over who gets the good dishes rather than the bank accounts.

As the primary family caregiver for an aging relative, you'll see it all with your care recipient's possessions: You already may have seen a glimpse of the relatives who want the things, but don't want the responsibility of caregiving. You may find yourself asking: Why should George get so much of Mom's things when he's done so little?

What's fair when distributing a care recipient's possessions? And, how can you best handle discussions with your care recipient about how to dispense his or her personal possessions after his or her death? The following tips, adapted from Who Gets Grandmas Yellow Pie Plate by Marlene S. Stum, Ph.D. Family Social Science, University of Minnesota Extension Service, can help:

1. Be clear about your own motives for raising the issue. What are your concerns, what do you want to have happen, and why? Before beginning a discussion, you may want to use a friend as a sounding board to express any frustration toward other family members you may feel. You'll want your discussion to focus on your care recipients wishes, rather than any frustrations you may feel, no matter how just.

2. Look for natural opportunities to talk with your care recipient. For example, perhaps a friend or relative recently dealt with transferring personal possessions after a death or a move. Use that situation to introduce a discussion with your care recipient. Ask, "What would you have done if you were in that situation?"

3. Keep using what if questions during your discussion. For example, "Dad, what would you want to have happen with the things in the house if you and Mom were no longer able to live here?"

4. Remember that listening is the part of communication we too often forget. After asking questions, listen to the answer with an objective ear. And, listen for the emotions behind the words. Anger often masks fear. Express empathy toward your care recipient: "I know this is an upsetting topic. I'm worried we won't handle your matters as you'd like. What do you worry about?"

5. Recognize that family members will have differing feelings and opinions. Conversations should focus on discovering those agreements and disagreements. If the disagreements seem to cause a divide too great to overcome, consider involving a mediator or elder law attorney. An objective third-party can keep the conversation focused on the objectives, rather than on any hurt feelings.

6. Be willing to listen and talk when another family member raises the issue. The situation only becomes personal if you make it so.

7. Remember: Not speaking up means others will not know your opinions or feelings. Express your thoughts assertively and graciously.

You may find that, even with your best attempts, you have a houseful of possessions to divide after your care recipients death. Keep in mind that fair division of possessions is almost impossible. But, a fair mechanism to divide the possessions can be used. Here are some ideas:

1. Hold a raffle. Each family member picks a number out of the hat. Each family member takes a turn selecting a possession based on the number he or she picks. If your brother, Rick, picks the Number 1, then he selects first; your sister, Sylvia, who picks Number 2, selects next, etc.

2. If more than one family member indicates they would like the same possession, then put the names of all interest parties in a hat. The selected name becomes the owner of the possession.

3. Sell all the possessions and divide the proceeds.

4. Take turns sharing a prized family possession; a family treasure (family Bible, family piano, family jewelry) spends five years with each sibling before moving on to the next sibling's home.


Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate: