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Little Things Mean a Lot

It seems that nowadays we can’t turn on the TV without coming across a programme about antiques, often featuring a treasured item that has been passed down through generations.  The expert’s valuation may be minimal, but usually the current owner professes a great attachment to the item as being an important link to a departed relative.  So whether or not our personal chattels have major monetary value, it can be important to use our Will to pass them on appropriately – but what is the best way to do it?

A clear, simple Will is always a good starting point – ‘everything equally between the children’ is a typical intention.  For the Executor handling the probate and the estate administration, that intention is relatively easy to implement for money from savings or from selling the house – but it is tricky to divide between the children the treasured grandfather clock or the piece of jewellery that is regarded by all as a family heirloom.  Hence, simply letting chattels be gifted as part of the estate residue can create practical problems.

A Will could contain a list of particular items to go to designated beneficiaries.  Indeed, the Will of William Shakespeare is famous for having left Anne Hathaway his “second-best bed.”  Any list needs to be kept in line with your current wishes, which could mean rewriting the Will each time you have a new grandchild or when your children finally admit that their taste in furniture doesn’t actually include your treasured items.

That’s why people may prefer to include within their Will a reference to a ‘letter of wishes.’  This letter is not itself a formal part of the Will, so you can write it yourself and update it as easily and as often as you wish.  The letter sets out what you want to happen to personal items – be that an exact list of gifts or perhaps just a general indication of wanting friends to choose a keepsake or two.  The Will asks the Executors/Trustees to follow this letter of wishes.  However they are not obliged to and can use their judgement to interpret your wishes according to the situation at the time.  That is great for providing flexibility, but it emphasises that you must choose Executors / Trustees that you can rely on to interpret your wishes appropriately.  If you choose professional Executors (who would not be keeping any items for themselves) they can be impartial about the implementation of your wishes.

But just what are personal chattels?  In everyday terms you might think of them as the contents of your house – furniture, paintings, photographs, jewellery, collectables and so forth.  However, the formal definition is quite extensive and includes vehicles, garden effects and also domestic animals.  Amongst this wide definition usually there will be items with a sentimental value that far outweighs their monetary worth.

Topping the list for sentimental value could well be your pets.  One particular case springs to mind, where the individual had just died and his house needed securing immediately.  Left behind were two small, elderly dogs who couldn’t wait for a grant of probate or the estate administration, but needed somewhere to sleep that night.  With the closest family being unable to take them, the Kings Court office spent the whole day on the telephone trying to find an animal rescue centre that would accept them.  Unfortunately, with all the local places full (or more often simply not willing to accept elderly dogs that would be difficult to re-home) the dogs faced a 50 mile trip to an emergency centre that would take them for one night, to be followed by a 70 mile trip the following day to a different centre that was offering a longer term place.  Fortunately at the last minute a solution arrived in the form of the locksmith who was going to secure the house.  He was immediately taken by their plight and offered them a perfect home with him in a rural location, where they are now happily living out their retirement.

Of course, a similar difficulty would have arisen if the owner had been taken into hospital or incapacited in any way.  Therefore, although animals can be gifted as part of a Will, you need to have in place practical arrangements for their immediate care should anything happen to you.  There are organisations that can help, such as the RSPCA with their "Home For Life" Service.

Often our pets are more of a drain on our money than a financial asset, but it would be nice to think that amongst the ordinary items that fill our homes there may be one or two valuable treasures.  However, that very possibility raises an extra problem if a Will simply divides the entire estate into shares – especially if a share is going to charity.  Each beneficiary must receive their entitlement, but a charity has a particular legal obligation to ensure that they receive full value.  This can result in the bother of all the contents of the house having to be professionally valued – even though ultimately the cost of the valuation might be more than the value of the goods themselves.  Therefore, it is often a good idea to leave your personal chattels to just one person or, if to be shared, then only between individuals who will be able to agree easily how to divide them.

Whilst creating a Will is a serious matter, one particular client has taken the opportunity to remind her family of her sense of fun.  By her fireplace she keeps a large number of brass ornaments which need frequent polishing.  For one of her sons it is always a source of banter that she should get rid of them to save the bother of cleaning.  So, with a twinkle in her eye, she has included in her Will a gift of those very items to that son.  She knows that probably he will not keep them long, but by making the gift she will have left him an invaluable reminder of their good relationship.

Often when creating a Will we focus on distributing the high worth items and the overall total value.  However, it is also important to consider the sentimental value of your personal chattels and give a thought to the practical problems and expense that they might cause for your Executors when trying to put your Will into practice.

Peter Wood of InHouse Wills & Probate can be reached on 0845 226 8581 or peter.wood@inhousewills.co.uk.