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Estate Planning

Which Child Gets Mom's China?

Even if she did like you best, avoid hard feelings and play fair.

After Frances Marcus died in 1994, her heirs, failing to find written instructions, did their best to divide her jewelry and personal possessions as she would have wanted. Years later, the Silver Spring, Md., family discovered Mom's instructions tucked into the back of a dresser drawer -- and found that they had guessed almost exactly right.

Ah, that every family could be so wise. In fact, the distribution of family belongings causes more feuds than the Wild Turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. To avoid hurt feelings that can last a generation, follow these steps for divvying up the memorabilia of a lifetime.

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Assess value. Have an appraiser put a dollar amount on every item of monetary value, says Angie Epting Morris, who wrote The Settlement Game (Voyages Press, $15). Later, add up the value of the items assigned to each family member. The highest amount becomes the benchmark, says Morris. The other family members take money from the estate to match it. An appraiser's fee can run from $75 to $300 an hour, depending on experience and location. To find an accredited appraiser in your area, go to www.appraisers.org.

Agree on a plan. And make sure that all the siblings can live with it. One popular strategy, described in Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate (University of Minnesota Extension, $12.50), is to gather items of similar monetary or sentimental value and let each heir pick a piece from the group. Use a random method, such as drawing straws, to determine who goes first. Switch the order for each go-round.

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Have your say. Before you start choosing, ask family members to write down the five items they most want and why they should have them. You may be surprised to find that everyone covets a different treasure, or that someone else's reason trumps yours. "I have a christening gown made by my grandmother," says Morris. "Because my son was the last to wear it, 100 years later, I wanted it for him. That made sense to my siblings, so I got it."

Count out spouses. Have in-laws stay out of it, says Morris. "Only immediate heirs should deal with the division of possessions." That proviso covers the grandkids. If they want a keepsake, a parent can choose for them.

Don't snitch the silver. You may know in your heart that Aunt Betty wanted you to have the silver gravy boat. But sneaking things out of the house before the distribution will create hard feelings. Don't do it.

Think outside the box. There's always at least one item that everyone wants, which means you'll have to come up with a creative compromise, says Bill Bushnell, an estate-planning attorney and mediator in Athens, Ga. His wife and her three siblings face that challenge with two valuable, matching portraits of their grandparents, one of whom was a Confederate general. One idea: Create copies of the portraits for each of the siblings and donate the original portraits to a museum.

Pledge to get along. Most families bring a mix of personalities to the splitting-up process. Respect your differences and commit to a peaceful outcome, says Morris. "Determine that when everything is said and done, you'll walk away friends."