|Jodi B., Paralegal|
Recently, my mind has been rewinding to not-so-ancient memories when my girls were preschoolers and Veggie Tales characters were part of our morning routine. In case you missed the episode starring Madame Blueberry, she is a blueberry cartoon character and lives in a simple treehouse at the top of a very tall tree. Shopping at Stuffmart thrills her and she goes on a massive shopping spree, filling her house with stuff until the weight causes her house to plummet to the ground in shattered pieces.
Estate law and blueberries…what’s the common denominator?? Stuff.
When our loved ones pass away, sometimes “stuff” (or rather tangible personal property) becomes so important, and there’s often a race to claim items before someone else can. Changing locks. Box trucks arriving in the middle of the night. One family member often takes possession of the stuff and begins to gather as much as they can, perhaps forgetting that their mom was also someone else’s mom and that her “stuff” is to be split according to her last wishes or state intestacy laws if no record was left. People can be in such a hurry to gather as much “stuff” as possible to stuff into their own houses without realizing the hurt they are causing others. Perhaps this illustration is far too simple for our non-blueberry lives because blueberries lack emotion, memories, and relationships. But the principle is still the same.
At The Peninsula Center for Estate and Lifelong Planning, we get calls all the time about “stuff.” In the estate world, the personal representative of the estate should be the one in charge of marshalling assets, keeping assets (including tangible personal property) safe, and distributing the estate. If you find yourself serving as the personal representative of an estate, open communication often puts anxieties to rest and can prevent feuds from happening. And if you are not the personal representative and the personal representative is not communicating at all, try a soft approach. Instead of accusing them of stealing the “stuff,” ask if they need help sorting through items or arranging a time for the heirs to get together. Grief overwhelms and skews our judgment and causes us to jump to conclusions and speak harsh words that sometimes have lasting consequences.
Estate administration can be overwhelming not only because one is wrapping up someone else’s affairs that they may not have known much about, but because it’s also an extremely emotional time filled with constant reminders of who we have lost. Please don’t get me wrong and think that I’m condoning those who truly steal from an estate, because that does happen. But sometimes, harsh words and actions over “stuff” sever and damage family relationships. Put relationships first and perhaps “stuff” will follow into its proper place. And if that happens, consider bringing blueberry pie for desert at the next family dinner. I promise Madame Blueberry won’t mind.