Is The China Share Selloff A Teapot Tempest?

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We all know to handle the heirloom china with care. It's a shame when a treasured dish breaks; how much more tragic when a rush for possession shatters family ties.

Believe it or not, after you're gone, it's the dishes you leave behind that may well stir up the most trouble. When it comes to making plans for what's left after we're gone, people tend to focus on the big items - the house, the car, the savings account. But it's the small things - a set of teacups, family heirlooms, sentimental items - that can cause the biggest challenges.

Deciding who gets what and how to do it was discussed in a University of Idaho extension office workshop titled, "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" The workshop focuses on transferring nontitled property and was presented this spring by Karen Richel, financial literacy extension coordinator, at Royal Plaza Retirement Center in Lewiston.

Titled vs. nontitled property

The things a person owns are divided into two groups: titled property and nontitled property.

Titled property includes things such as real estate, cars, savings and checking accounts, stocks and bonds - anything whose owner is identified by a legal, written document. A will or a living trust generally identifies how to dispose of these items.

Dealing with titled property is fairly straightforward, Richel said. It can be transferred through a will, a living trust or as a gift before death - each with their various costs and benefits. You need to know how your property is titled, however, and take all the necessary steps to follow state laws, or it could turn out differently than you wish.

"You really want to go talk to a legal adviser so you can find the situation that's best for you," Richel said.

A common misconception is that wills are expensive, Richel said, but most cost between $100 and 500 and are well worth having. Living trusts cost more, but they avoid the probate process that otherwise takes place after a death and have benefits that may make the extra protection worthwhile in certain situations. When people die without a will or living trust, state laws about property are applied.

Dealing with titled property is important, Richel said, but so is dealing with nontitled property. Nontitled property is everything else that belongs to a person where an owner is not identifiable. Nontitled items include things like dishes, furniture, guns, books, photos, linens, artwork, jewelry and collections.

"It's generally something that is more sentimental versus something of financial worth," Richel said.

Why it matters

Although most nontitled property has negligible financial value, personal items can be invaluable to loved ones because of the memories they carry. Conflicts can arise because these items have high emotional value.

"Attorneys tell us that it is the personal property that causes the most problems when settling estates," Richel said. "It's the small stuff that tends to cause the most arguments."

Despite this volatile potential, owners often neglect making decisions about personal property for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they don't believe these things will cause conflict among their loved ones or that their property doesn't have any value. Other times owners just don't want to hassle with the decisions themselves or feel there are too many other issues to deal with.

Because it's difficult, owners who are aware of high emotional value attached to personal items tend to put off making decisions who should get them. Both owners and their loved ones might avoid conversation about the matter because they don't feel it is their place to bring it up or are uncomfortable talking about death. Or they fear the conflicts that might result if the subject is brought up.

When people avoid making these decisions, they are often made after a death or crisis.

"Personal property is an issue that's avoided until something happens," Richel said. "People don't really want to talk about it."

However, she said, making decisions before a death or crisis event minimizes conflict among heirs and allows the owner to share special memories.

Sharing stories

Making proactive decisions about transferring personal property isn't just about dealing with your stuff, Richel said, it's a chance to share stories and connect with loved ones.

"It's an awesome way to start sharing these memories that can live on," Richel said. "It's not getting rid of stuff, it's passing it on, it's sharing the story."

A family heirloom that has been passed down through generations - a valuable watch, for example, or a family Bible or a piece of furniture - is a visual reminder of a family story. Telling the history of these items often adds value to them. Talking about who the item has belonged to, how it was received and special memories it carries can transform what might have been dismissed as just an old book or ugly necklace into something of lasting sentimental value.

Sometimes family stories come from everyday items that may have had no value to a previous generation - something like a chipped serving dish that was always present at holiday meals or trinket on a shelf that was regularly handled and admired. In these cases, it can be valuable to gather loved ones and give them the opportunity to share stories or feelings connected with these items.

It's important to remember, Richel said, that even if an item is not special to its owner, it might be to their loved ones.

"We have stories attached to things," Richel said. "Your stuff is not just stuff, it may have meaning."

Waiting for someone else to deal with your things after you're gone means stories might be lost and items and memories that were precious to you might not be passed on.

Reducing conflict

More than stories that can be lost in the process of transferring personal property - relationships can be too.

"You never really know a person until you share an inheritance with them," Richel said.

Inheritances have a tendency to bring out the worst in people. Relationships can quickly deteriorate into bickering, disappointment and conflict, even in families that get along well. Because emotions are often attached to personal property and because loss is handled in various ways, there can be hurt feelings and misunderstandings and people leave the process feeling things were unfair.

Conflict in these situations can quickly escalate. Richel recounted a fight over a beloved singing trout wall hanging. The disagreement turned into a legal battle that racked up thousands of dollars in litigation fees. It might sound extreme, she said, but emotions come into play in these situations more often than people might think.

Being proactive and communicating ahead of time about what will happen with personal property tends to minimize conflict after you're gone.

Minimize family conflict

If your goal is to maintain family relationships, remember that transferring personal property can be a sensitive issue.

"When it comes to transferring personal property, it's not the outcome that people have the problem with," Richel said, "it's the process."

Most often, a conversation with family members about your plans can minimize potential hurt. For example, an owner might choose to pass down a family heirloom to a son-in-law instead of a son because he or she believes the son doesn't want it. Without an explanation, however, the son may assume he has fallen out of his parents' good graces.

"Think about the legacy you can leave behind. And think about the possible hurt you can leave behind with things that are left unsaid," Richel said.

Explaining the decision doesn't change it, Richel said, but it can help ease the pain or disappointment. Without those explanations, loved ones often make assumptions about their standing in the family. Past and present family tensions like sibling rivalry, in-law relationships and parental disappointments can come into sharp focus.

"Inheritance decisions carry powerful messages," Richel said.

Another source of conflict can arise when an owner feels their gifts aren't adequately appreciated. It can be hurtful when a loved one does not place the same value on a precious item, Richel said, but she encourages people not to take it personally. Among other practical reasons - like not having the room to store a doll collection - she reiterated that a loved ones' lack of attachment to a beloved item may be because they don't know its story.

Also be aware that the inheritance process can bring family secrets to the surface, Richel said. She shared a story about a family who had a tradition of passing a special dish to the firstborn daughter. There were two daughters in the family, but the eldest was the result of a rape. She was unaware she wasn't her father's biological daughter, and was confused when the dish went to her sister's family. Be proactive and communicate about situations such as this that may arise.

Define fairness

Another key issue in minimizing conflict is defining equality. Richel described it with a joke: "What is fair? It's all relative."

But fairness is no laughing matter. When it comes to sharing personal property, the definition of depends on family members.

"'Equal' can mean different things to different people," Richel said.

It can be tempting for owners to resort to statements in their will like "divide my personal property evenly among my children." It sounds simple, but challenges arise. Is "equal" measured by number of items, dollar value, emotional value or some other metric? Because it's an arbitrary measurement, lawyers don't recommend using it, Richel said.

Other "fairness" questions that frequently arise: Does fair mean everyone gets the same amount or do loved ones who contributed more get more? Do those with more needs get more? Should a brother's claim to the family china be treated as his sisters'?

Owners who clarify to loved ones how they define fairness in their choice of who should get what can go a long way toward reducing assumptions, misunderstandings and unnecessary tension.

How to do it

There's no one right way to transfer personal property. Every option has benefits and consequences, so it's important to find a solution that works well for you and your family.

The bottom line? In order for an owner's wishes to hold up in court, they must be in writing. The best way to do that is by using a specific devise - a document that lists who gets what. It is identified in the will, but separate from it. It can be changed at any time by the owner and each update is dated. An attorney can provide guidance about how best to create this document, but because it is not part of the will, it can be easily changed without professional assistance.

Some owners choose to create this list on their own; others do so after getting input from their loved ones about items they are most interested in receiving. See the accompanying stories for ideas on how to get this input in a way that minimizes conflict and gives each family member a voice in expressing their desires.

Some people like to label items with the names of desired recipients, Richel said. This can be a helpful, but she advises that a specific device be created to accompany labels. Because labels can be moved or removed, intentionally or not, it's best to have a legally defensible backup list.

Alternately, items can be given away prior to the owner's death. However, gifts of money or property worth more than a certain amount are subject to estate tax. This tax applies to gifts given within a certain number of years prior to the owner's death.

There are countless good options for how to transfer personal property well - but taking no action at all is not one of them.

Schmidt can be contacted at (208) 305-4578 or

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