How do we resolve a dispute over inheritance of Mom's rings?

A fellow caregiver asked...

There's a dispute over inheritance of Mom's rings. My mother recently passed away and her will stipulated that her estate should be divided among her five children. She lived in a small apartment and all the siblings divided up her personal property without discord, except for her engagement and wedding band. Her wishes for the disposal of the ring are in disagreement. She told my brother that the ring was for his daughter and my sister, who is the executor of the estate, said that she told her she could have it. Now they are not speaking with each other. How can we come to an inheritance dispute resolution?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

If your mother’s will specified only that her property should be divided among her children—a common provision for parents who live and die in hope that they’ll all get along peacefully—and left no specific direction for who gets the rings, then you must wrestle over how to distribute them.

If your mother’s will named only her children as beneficiaries, then her granddaughter has no true legal claim on the ring. But it sounds as if the family is getting hung up on the “he said, she said” nature of the alleged promises for the ring, so that is what matters.

You might try calling a family meeting to solve the standoff; it sounds as if you’ve all been able to behave quite chummily about all matters except for this last one. How you ultimately resolve ownership of the rings is limited only by the imaginations and flexibility of those involved. And bear in mind that another subterranean goal is to have the family members speak to one another some day; you really don’t want them going to their own graves in a snit over this.

If worst comes to worst, one resolution would be to sell off the rings—and divide the proceeds equally among the five children. That takes care of it, but has the unfortunate effect of putting the rings out of the family—and those things are likely to have even more sentimental value than monetary worth.

Some other possibilities:

  • The granddaughter and daughter could share custody of the rings; one would get to have and hold them on alternate years, for example. Could help build in a sense of fun and sharing—if there’s fun and sharing to be had.
  • The daughter could have legal ownership of the rings during her life—and agree to leave them to the granddaughter, her niece, when she dies. This might work especially well if there is a large age differential.
  • The two could draw straws for ownership. It is harder to hold a grudge against the determining straw than it is to begrudge a human.