Spare Your Heirs the Guitar Man’s Fate: Three Tips for an Estate Plan That Silences Arguments Over Family Heirlooms

When Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia died in 1995, he left his custom guitars to the man who made them.

But Douglas Irwin, who built the guitars known as Eagle, Wolf, Tiger, Wolf Jr. and Rosebud, ran into opposition from the remaining members of the band and was forced to file suit to take possession of them. The other Grateful Dead members argued that the band’s instruments were owned collectively, and therefore the guitars weren’t Garcia’s to bequeath. Eventually, the parties reached an agreement, and Irwin received Wolf and Tiger. Irwin, who had fallen on hard times, sold both guitars.

Fighting over a decedent’s possessions is not uncommon, though most people don’t find themselves in the same situation as the guitar maker. Here’s a much more typical scenario:

A sibling arrives at her recently deceased mother’s home to discuss the funeral arrangements with another sibling. When the first sibling asks about the mother’s engagement ring and grandmother’s china, the second sibling responds that their mother gave her those items years ago.

Their mother’s will hasn’t even been read and trouble is already brewing.

While items such as china, jewelry and photo albums may not be worth nearly as much as Garcia’s iconic guitars, their sentimental value to family members may be incalculable. Arguments over these items might not reach the courtroom, but they could still add to the family’s stress in an already difficult time and lead to hard feelings that may never be resolved.

It’s not difficult to craft an estate plan that leaves no room for debate, however. Here are three tips to avoid disputes over who gets what:

  1. Be specific. Don’t leave the disposition of family heirlooms to chance — or a judge. Most wills have a standard clause that leaves the distribution of tangible personal property up to the executor to divide among the beneficiaries. When families get along well, this usually isn’t a problem. But when the heirs aren’t on the same page, this clause opens the door to litigation. Every item in the will should be named, described and left to a named beneficiary. Some states allow the use of a separate memorandum that can be edited to add new items without having to call a lawyer and sign a codicil to the will.
  2. Have the will reviewed periodically. Life is not stagnant. Changes may occur in the law — and in your wealth, health, intentions or family structure. Keeping the estate plan current is an important part of keeping the peace, so you and your advisers should periodically review your estate plan.
  3. Choose a level-headed executor. It’s up to the executor to distribute the bequests to the beneficiaries and address any disputes. An executor with good communication and diplomacy skills can help defuse disagreements and tense situations, which can go a long way to keeping disputes out of court.