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Thursday, May 15, 2014

When I inherit Dad's house, do I also inherit its contents?

When you inherit a house from your parents, you don't necessarily inherit everything in it. Similarly, when you inherit their cabin, you don't necessarily inherit the boat and the trailer that's usually parked there. What if you think you do inherit them, but your siblings think you don't? This could lead to real conflict between you.

How do you know whether you inherit the furnishings and accessories? A reader recently wrote to me about this. His question and my answer appear here:

"My dad passed away a year and a half ago and left his house to my sister and I. I bought my sister out, paid her what she wanted and things were ok. I made a spring cleaning a few days ago and threw out some old furniture. When she found out she totally freaked out on me saying that half of what is now my house is hers? Threatening that she will come over and take half of what is in the house. Can she do that after buying her out?"

The answer to this question is going to depend largely on the wording in your father's will. It appears that your sister thinks that you bought out only the title to the house and that she still owns half of the household contents that belonged to your father. You, on the other hand, think the purchase included the contents of the house as well.

What exactly did your father leave to you and your sister according to his will? Did he specifically refer to the house? Did he refer to the house and its contents? Or, did he simply leave the entire estate to both of you, and the house just happened to be part of the estate?

Whether or not a will describes what to do about household belongings will depend on the experience of the lawyer who drew it. Those of us who have been around wills and estates for a long time wouldn't consider drawing up a will that didn't give clear instructions on this point. However, there are still a heck of a lot of wills out there that do not address it. Obviously I haven't seen the will in question, but it seems unlikely that you'd be asking this question if the will were clear on the point.

As a general rule, a gift of a property does not include the furnishings and household objects in that property. It's a transfer of a title to real estate only.

If the will specifically says "house and contents", then the contents are yours. If it only refers to the house, the household contents fall into the residue of the estate and are divided according to the will. If there is no mention at all of the furniture, household goods, and personal items, they belong to the residuary beneficiaries. I assume that in this case, this means you and your sister.

The other factor is any agreement between you and your sister made at the time you bought her out. I doubt there is any clarification available here, as you were working with one definition of "the house" and she was working with another. I don't suppose you two made a written agreement that might specify exactly what was changing hands?

The bottom line is that unless the will gives you specific rights to those furnishings, or you and your sister have a clear agreement on them, you have to share them.

It is so unbelievably easy to make a mistake when drawing up a will. The vast majority of my clients over the years have started out the conversation with "I only need a simple will", but I know full well they only think that because they haven't yet begun to realize how easily they could pit their kids against each other. I hope you and your sister can work this out. If you still have questions, it might be a good idea to take the will itself to a lawyer for further clarification.

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