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Someone once said that my stuff is “stuff” and somebody else’s stuff is “junk.” But when someone dies, nothing causes fights in estates more than “stuff” — family heirlooms, collectibles and just about anything not nailed down. Legally, these items are referred to as “tangible personal property.”

What happens to these items after someone dies depends on many factors, especially if that person dies without a will, or “intestate.” Let’s focus on what happens to someone’s stuff when there is no will.

Where Do You Live?

The law of the state where the deceased was living at the time of their death generally determines who inherits their tangible personal property when there is no will (or living trust). In most states, if the deceased was married, a portion of the tangible personal property will automatically go to the surviving spouse. This is generally true for an intact family. Unfortunately, however, in blended families, the law usually references a percentage or faction, such as one-third or one-half, and determining exactly what that fraction is can, of course, be a problem. Is it one-third of the couch? One-half of the jewelry and if so, which half? As you can see, the problems can be considerable.

A Few Ways to Solve Disputes

When children and particularly step-children are involved, things can get out of control quickly because there are no instructions to determine who gets what. The best and most common way to handle these issues and avoid World War III is a lottery system, in my experience. Usually, pieces of paper each with a different number written on it, are put in a bowl, and then the heirs take turns selecting a piece of paper and pick what they want according to the number they’ve drawn.

Another common method is for someone to affix names on certain items of property they own before their death, which can work unless someone secretly switches the names in order to be more “fair.” In the end, however, your best option for dealing with your tangible personal property is to prepare a will or a living trust that includes a specific heirloom list and a formula for distributing things that are not on that list so that your wishes will be legally enforceable. Family harmony after a death is fragile; making your wishes crystal clear will help keep emotions under control.

You can find simple guides to estate planning and inheritance planning here. You can find tips here to ensure your debt after death doesn’t hurt your loved ones. And be sure to get your free annual credit reports every year so you can make sure there are no surprises on yours that might impact your family after your death. (Editor’s Note: You can also get a free credit report summary every month on Credit.com to see where you stand.)

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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