No one really wants to inherit their parents' shoes or toothbrush or underwear after they die (at least I don’t), but what about all the other personal items left behind? From jewelry, art, furniture and antiques, to china, silverware, dishes and mementos, everything is an object over which a fight can ensue between siblings.

Exactly who is entitled to a decedent’s stuff (referred to as “tangible personal property” in legal jargon) and how is it passed out after death? Well, there is a right way and a wrong way, and it’s hard to enforce the right way.


Washington and Idaho both allow you to leave a separate list of personal property with instructions as to who should get each item, as long as your Will references the list and references the law. Your list can be handwritten or typed, but must be signed and dated.
The list should be of sufficient detail to effectively describe each item being given.

Technically, all other property is supposed to be inventoried and then distributed according to the terms of the Will. If the Will provides for specific items to go to specific people, then that must occur. If not, then the beneficiaries can discuss who wants what and the Personal Representative must make a final decision in the event of a conflict. Any property left over is sold and the proceeds from sale split evenly among the beneficiaries.

Or better yet, the parent or grandparent can give an item of personal property before death. This is ideal because (1) it prevents any arguments relating to the parent’s intent, and (2) it allows the parent or grandparent to enjoy the act of giving (and witness the excitement of receiving) the gift. It also ensures that the gift will be made.


Imagine the decedent’s heirs going through his or her house and randomly taking personal objects without any authorization or direction. They refuse to follow the terms of the Will and they fail to wait until a PR is in place to sort out the details. Once a PR is in place, it's too late, the property is gone and trying to recover it is nearly impossible.

The problem with the wrong way to pass personal items is that (1) it happens all the time, and (2) it’s hard to prevent. It really depends on the people involved. Will they wait to play by the rules or are they just going to do what they like? And the costs involved in trying to recover personal property is far too high to justify doing it in most cases.

At a minimum, a PR should try to secure the decedent’s home as soon as possible and take possession of the personal items as quickly as possible. Of course, it’s not always so easy to know which personal items people will want. Sometimes it can be the least obvious item.

If you have questions about distributing tangible personal property as part of your estate plan, give us a call at 253.858.5434 to see how we can help.