When Bob Alberti's cousins learned that his grandmother had died without a will, they descended on the house to take what they wanted -- even unwrapping unmarked Christmas presents. It gave him a firsthand look at how greedy family members can take advantage when there isn't a plan in place.
"I learned a lasting lesson then: Do your family a favor and make a will," Alberti, of Minneapolis, said of his childhood experience.
As the nation's 76 million baby boomers age, more families are being faced with how to divide personal belongings. Adding to the challenge: There are more family members in the mix because of changing family dynamics, most often because of divorce.
Wills often cover the transfer of cash, property and stock, but often skip over who gets household possessions. That can cause emotions to 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.
"How often it happens is anecdotal, but too often siblings fight over common possessions and never speak to each other again," said Marlene Stum, a University of Minnesota professor who helped write a guide called "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" "When an inheritance is involved, rivalries play out."
While experts say planning can help, sometimes it's not enough to stave off greed and hurt feelings.
"It's important for families to talk, because there are always hidden agendas," said Stum. There is often a "mom loved you best" assumption lying in the weeds.
To avoid this problem, families need to establish goals and decide what's fair. Otherwise, laying claim to an ordinary candy dish can become symbolic of someone trying to right all those childhood wrongs, she said.
Families have different methods that have worked, but all take patience and planning. Some sit down when parents are still alive to decide who gets what.
If the process takes place after a death, families often let the siblings have their pick of the possessions, going from oldest to youngest or vice versa.
Whatever it is, experts encourage an impartial game plan.
"Having a plan avoids a situation like the uncle who picks Grandma's house clean while all the other relatives are at the funeral," said Stum.
Sometimes keeping it fair means taking what seems like an extreme measure.
Bonnie McPherson, who runs an estate sale company in Edina, recommends that the executor of the estate change the locks on the house when the parents or grandparents die.
"The person in charge shouldn't allow people to start helping themselves," she said.
If a family decides to have an estate sale, her company often has a family "pre-sale" after the items have been given a value. Family members can select the items they want, but not pay for them; their value is deducted from their total proceeds once the sale is over. "So no one can say at the end that you got more than I did," she said.
Families make it work
John Robinson of Maple Grove said it was an "overwhelming" experience when he was put in charge of dividing possessions among four middle-aged siblings after his 81-year-old mom died in January. "I wanted to be fair and transparent to everyone involved -- and honor our mother, too," he said.
He divided the possessions into four categories: antiques and furniture, kitchen and electronics, figurines and collectibles, and jewelry. He hired an appraiser to establish value on larger antiques, went to the IRS guidelines for establishing values on smaller items, and discussed the fairest way to divide everything among the four kids. They drew numbers out of a hat to determine the order of picking.
Patti Dillon of Edina said that she and her five siblings kept the peace because her oldest sibling, the executor of the will, wouldn't allow any "promise" claims.
"Unless it was in the will, we did not honor claims that Mom promised someone something," she said. Instead, her brother made a four-page list of everything that wasn't being donated or tossed, and followed the parents' instructions of letting the six siblings choose in order from oldest to youngest and then youngest to oldest.
When it was done, there were no hard feelings. "Just the way my parents would have wanted it to be," she said.
For some families, the parent or grandparent wants to divvy up the possessions, or it happens naturally through downsizing.
If decisions are made prior to a death, they can reflect the owner's wishes, Stum said. It also gives the parent or owner a chance to share stories, history and traditions.
That option has a practical side, as well. Shannon Law, who has an appraisal business, said she has seen many people in their 60s and 70s start the process. "They don't want their family to have to take on the burden of going through a lifetime of accumulation," she said.
But that doesn't work for everyone. Robinson said it never occurred to his family to start putting names on cherished items while his mom was still alive. "It would have been crass to pick over the stuff when a person's health is compromised," he said.
A plan, but still tears
Even the best-laid plans can result in raw feelings. As each member in Robinson's family chose an item, its value was deducted from the amount that each person would receive from their mother's estate. That was designed to prevent resentments of one person choosing valuable items while others chose sentimental ones. No one wants to hear "You got all the good stuff" six months or even 10 years after the divide.
Although his siblings agreed on the selection order by drawing numbers out of a hat, the sibling who was last in line in Round One made it clear that she was disappointed that she didn't get the pair of antique walnut end tables.
Robinson's brothers and sisters agreed that exchanges could be made. The brother gave up the end tables. And there was peace in the family.
"I would have loved to have those tables, too," said Robinson, "but it wasn't worth the baggage."