Nothing stirs up old resentments and rivalries among relatives than a significant death in the family. Before some relatives have even had a chance to process the information that their loved one has died, others may use their spare key to let themselves into the decedent’s home. They might try to make off with heirloom jewelry, pieces of artwork, coin collections and other personal items.

As the executor, you’re in charge of putting a stop to those kinds of acts — so you did. Now, however, you’re faced with the difficult task of dividing up family heirlooms and the decedent’s personal items. It didn’t take long to discover that they had a will. Still, they didn’t leave much in the way of direction about their personal effects and heirlooms.

Dividing the deceased’s sentimental belongings can actually provoke more hostility among the heirs than the division of assets, especially when there’s no clear direction from the deceased. How do you do it? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Get an inventory. As tedious as it may sound to inventory an entire house full of stuff, that’s the best way to protect yourself if there are questions later. You can use your inventory to show what was in the house at the time — and who received what items later.
  2. Get appraisals. The last thing you want is an accusation that “all of the good stuff” went to one relative and not the other. You want to make sure that you understand the monetary value of any special collections, jewelry, art or instruments so that you can fairly divide them among the heirs.
  3. Talk to the heirs. You may find that, once tempers have cooled and some time has passed, that there are only a few things in dispute. Find out what each heir actually wants so that you can dedicate your energies to only the disputed items.

Once you’ve done these things, the next step is to settle on a distribution method. Commonly, heirs take turns picking from the disputed items — or agree to sell them at an estate sale.

If a pitched battle over the deceased’s personal items erupts (and it can), an experienced attorney can help with the estate litigation.