An Estate Planning Cautionary Tale from a Nobel Peace Prize Winner

At age thirty-five, Martin Luther King Jr. was the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions towards ending segregation in the United States.   During his eloquent and powerful acceptance speech, Dr. King noted that “the richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”  Unfortunately, Dr. King’s own children are now enmeshed in tumultuous legal posturing over possession of his Nobel Peace Prize. The battle over Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize is no way unique.  Family disputes over items of tangible personal property are frequent and can devolve into venomous affairs, irreparably fracturing familial relations and costing thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees.

Most people do not have a Nobel Peace Prize to leave to a loved one, museum, or charity; however, almost all families have cherished heirlooms whose personal value is immeasurable.  Whether it is a wedding ring that has been kept within the family for generations, a bible signed by a long-passed matriarch, or a father’s baseball card collection, tangible personal property has immense sentimental value. Items of tangible personal property may be the object of intense desire for multiple beneficiaries. Having an effective estate plan in place ensures that disputes over tangible personal property are largely avoided.

A skilled and experienced legal estate planning team can assist you in formulating a plan to avoid quarrels over tangible personal property. Multiple strategies are available under current Michigan law to make certain that specific items of tangible personal property can be left to a desired recipient.  One such strategy is to identify items of high intrinsic or personal value and make a specific gift of such item within the provisions of a will or a trust.  Michigan law also permits an individual to leave a separate writing, referenced in either a will or a trust, identifying how specific items of tangible personal property should be distributed.  This document is commonly referred to as a personal property memorandum and need only be in the handwriting of the person making the will or trust, signed, and referred to in the will or trust to have legal effect.  Preferably, the personal property memorandum will be attached directly to the will or trust.

Using either strategy, it is not necessary to divide each and every item of personal property, but instead it is only necessary to identify those items of high intrinsic value.  Remaining items of tangible personal property, such as furniture and housewares, can be part of a general disposition made in an estate planning document.  Open and honest communication with your loved ones now about treasured items of tangible personal property can prevent future clashes.  Like Dr. King’s children, our loved ones also may not be able to live up to his soaring oratory.  Recognizing this reality is the first step toward developing an estate plan that can save heartache for your heirs and assure your wishes are honored and your legacy protected.

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