Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - "Choose It or Lose It" - Part Two


"Emotions [can] 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."
John Ewolt

(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 eminently fair.
Here are the key elements of Henry's wisdom:
  1. He took personal responsibility, not leaving this difficult issue for his children to muddle through without his guidance and oversight.
  2. He developed a simple and fair process for making the division, and made sure everyone understood it.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 home.
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 overly-emotional settings.
I 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.   

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