Wednesday Wisdom - "Choose It or Lose It" - Part Two
"CHOOSE IT OR LOSE IT" - Part Two
run high over who gets Grandma's pearl necklace or Dad's fishing pole.
Disagreements over who gets what can lead to bawling and brawling between
siblings that can scar relationships forever."
(Dividing the assets of a recently-deceased loved one can
challenge the good will of even the best of families. This series of
articles provides guidance for those facing this tricky task.)
In the fall of 1986, my wife's father, Henry Ware Hobbs, Jr.
sent each of his six children a large legal file entitled "Choose It or Lose It."
The file contained a photograph of every heirloom object he owned and a
paragraph about each item. In the cover letter to the file, he invited his
children to come to his house "at high noon" (he often had a
flair for the dramatic) on the Friday after Thanksgiving, without spouses,
prepared to "choose it or lose it."
At the meeting, each of the children drew numbers and then
proceeded to voice their top choice, one child at a time until all six had
selected. Then the order was reversed for round two, with the child who had
drawn number six going first this time, followed by number five,
etc. Back and forth they went, round by round, until everything
had been earmarked and their choices recorded. It was elegantly simple and
are the key elements of Henry's wisdom:
He took personal
responsibility, not leaving this difficult issue for his children to
muddle through without his guidance and oversight.
He developed a simple and
fair process for making the division, and made sure everyone
He did not presume as the
parent to know what each child valued; instead his process allowed
them to express with their choices what was important to them.
He found ways to reduce the
emotions and stress in a setting naturally fraught with tender
feelings, hidden agendas, and deeply-embedded rivalries, such as by
starting early, using humor, and disinviting spouses.
When Henry passed away seven years later, everything from the
original "Choose It or Lose It" meeting was distributed according
to the earlier lists without confusion, rancor, or drama.
But as it turned out, Henry had not included his own
possessions in the original "Choose It or Lose It" session, only
those things he considered family heirlooms. No problem. The family
inventoried Henry's personal items, selected a private meeting place, and
repeated the same process, again with harmonious results.
When my father died about ten years ago, my brothers and
sisters and I employed this simple process to allocate his meager personal
effects. It was a sweet and satisfying experience for all. We felt our
father would have been pleased to see our cooperation and our concern for
each other's happiness in distributing these cherished items.
Most recently, over the New Year's holiday, my wife and her
siblings used their father's "Choose It or Lose It" approach to
smoothly divide and distribute the contents of their mother's large
Mississippi home, which had been sold after their mother moved to a nursing
From observing the process three times in my wife's family and
once in my own, and from using it with great success in my own legal
practice, I can heartily recommend the principles that undergird Henry's
methodology: 1) Take
personal responsibility; 2) Develop a fair and simple process; 3) Let the
heirs express their values with their choices; and 4) Avoid
encourage families to implement these four principles as they face the
daunting task of dividing the artwork, heirlooms, and tangible effects of a
loved one. Each family's methodology may vary somewhat from Henry's, but as
long as the principles are honored, the results should be positive. I am
not suggesting that this approach can eliminate every pitfall, but I do
believe it is more likely to engender lasting family harmony than the
free-for-all most parents and grandparents leave their heirs.