When you prepare your estate plan, one of the things that you'll need to consider is how you want your personal effects to be distributed, including jewelry, collectibles, antiques and art work, even your pets. If you have specific people in mind to receive certain items, then you'll need to spell out your wishes in a separate writing called a Memorandum of Tangible Personal Property.
Disadvantages of Making a Personal Property List in Your Will or Trust
Why not just put the list right in your Last Will and Testament or Revocable Living Trust? Because if you later decide that you want to change who gets what, then you'll need to sign a formal Codicil or Trust Amendment. By using a Memorandum of Personal Property instead, you'll be able to change who and what's on the list without worrying about the formalities required to sign a Codicil or Amendment. (Note - as discussed below, state laws will dictate whether an informal Memorandum of Personal Property will be legally binding on your beneficiaries, but refer to the practical reality of making a separate list also discussed below.)
State Laws Dictate the Validity of a Memorandum of Personal Property
If you decide to make a list of who you want to receive your personal effects, then you'll need to consult with your estate planning attorney to determine the proper procedure under your state's laws to insure that the Memorandum of Tangible Personal Property will be legally binding on your beneficiaries. Some states require that the Memorandum be specifically mentioned in your Last Will and Testament or Revocable Living Trust for it to be binding, while other states simply won't recognize an "informal" list (but see the practical reality of making a list discussed below).
Aside from this, be sure to update your list if you sell, lose, or give away an item or if a beneficiary you've named dies. Keep the list in a safe place along with your original estate planning documents, and if you make changes be sure to send them to your estate planning attorney.
The Practical Side of Making a Memorandum of Personal Property
While as mentioned above state laws will dictate whether your Memoradum of Personal Property will be legally binding on your beneficiaries, the reality of the situation is much different. What I've observed from personal experience is that when a list of personal effects, especially one that's in the decedent's own handwriting, is presented to the beneficiaries, there aren't any arguments about who gets what.
Another very effective technique that I've recommended to clients when they know that there will be a fight over their stuff is to have the personal items appraised and then the client will mark who gets what next to the items listed on the appraisal. Who really wants to argue when it's all in mom's own handwriting? In these situations common sense and a practical solution overcome the strict requirements of the law.