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Small value estates: How to divide up personal items fairly

In Pennsylvania, there's a provision in the law that allows some small estates to avoid the probate process altogether.

In order to qualify, the total value of a deceased individual's assets has to be less than $50,000 and can't include real estate. You'll still have to petition the court and get approval to handle the estate that way, and you still have to make sure that the deceased's creditors are paid before any remaining assets are distributed.

In practical terms, this often leaves the administrator of an estate with the most difficult task of all: distributing the deceased's household goods and personal items in a way that satisfies all of his or her heirs. This can be a difficult task because family members can often attach a great deal of sentimental value to certain items and there may be hard feelings or even threats of legal action if things aren't divided up fairly.

If you're lucky, the will may address some of the more valuable or sentimental items left in the estate, like wedding rings, watches and coin collections. If so, once you have the court's permission, you can distribute those things as the will directed. If not, they have to be added to the general estate, inventoried and divided as appropriate.

The inventory gives you a starting point that can help you come up with a fair way to let everyone get something that they want. It may help to take digital photos of any grouped items (like plates or silverware) or collections (like figurines or pottery) so that you can use the photos when discussing the distribution with the heirs.

Discuss the preferred method of distribution with all of the heirs together. If the deceased had three children, for example, they may agree to each take a turn choosing one item at a time that they want from the estate until there's either nothing left or nothing anybody wants. The rest can either be donated, if the heirs agree, or sold so that the proceeds can be divided.

If there's a dispute about how to disperse the items, however, remember that you are ultimately in charge. Don't be afraid to assert your authority in order to expedite matters and settle the estate.

If you need help with the paperwork and distribution of a small value estate to its heirs, consider contacting an estate attorney for assistance.

Source: Pennsylvania General Assembly, "Title 20," accessed Jan. 05, 2017

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