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I have a number of cousins to whom I have left in my will, in equal shares, a minority portion of my cash and investments. The rest goes to charities. I also have some valuable jewelry and other personal property that I have not assigned in my will.

I refuse to make a list of the sort that A gets A" and B gets B" and so on. I don't know their tastes well enough, the various pieces vary greatly in value, and life is too short for obsessive bean-counting. But I would like some sort of fair distribution to be made, preferably without selling everything and equally splitting the proceeds, although I do not rule out that option.

I also do not want ill-feeling to arise over the distribution, and I do not want my lawyer/executor spending her time putting out fires.

I would like suggestions on a process that is easy to implement, that will result in people getting pretty much what they want most, and leave them feeling they have been treated fairly. (They live close to each other; I live hundreds of miles away, as does my lawyer/executor.)

I could just dump all this in my lawyer's lap, but I thought I'd see what you suggest first. Please note: Sentimental value does not come into this at all. Also note, total value not going to charity is below the threshold for estate taxes.

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The hassle free way to deal with this is to either:

  • Designate pieces of jewelry for each cousin as you see fit, attempting to make each 'gift bag' similarly valued
  • Sell it all and give them the cash

Plan B is a "Let's Make a Deal!"

I am assuming that the distribution to each party is at least the value of your most valuable piece of jewelry. For a fair distribution of the assets, I would get a reliable appraisal for each item.

The cousins will draw random numbers to determine the order of selection which will continue until all items have been either picked or passed. Items passed will be sold and the proceeds will go to the estate. When done, the one with the highest total value is the baseline and all others will be given enough cash to raise the value of the jewelry they picked to the baseline value. If one or more cousins pick no jewelry, they each get the baseline value in cash.

Since the appraisal number is the approximate current value, if someone selected an item, it would be tantamount to buying jewelry at retail price. That's not a very appealing choice. Mark the appraisal number down by some percent. Whatever makes you happy. Let's say 50%. So the choice will be jewelry item or 50% of its value in cash.

Empower your lawyer that if there is any squabbling, at his discretion he can terminate the process and everything will be sold off and the heirs will receive your predetermined cash distribution amount. The contestants should be informed of this as well.

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The easiest option is likely to have either a draft or an auction.

In a draft, everyone draws straws. The first person picks the first item they want and every round you reverse order. If there are 3 cousins A picks first, B picks second, C third, then C picks fourth, B picks fifth, and A picks sixth. Repeat until everything is distributed.

In an auction, each heir gets, say, 1000 ab2 estate bucks. Whatever items you want to distribute are then auctioned off using that currency. This is a bit more work and there are potentially issues if some of the cousins have better strategy (i.e. B and C collude to artificially bid up prices on things A is interested in and not to bid against each other on other pieces). On the other hand, it works very well if you have a small number of very valuable pieces or if you decide that you want some people to have a fractional share (i.e. the three cousins get a full 1000 ab2 estate bucks and a couple of nieces each get a half share of 500 ab2 estate bucks).

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