Dealing with Personal Chattels

There are many legal terms that can make it difficult to understand your Will.  These words and phrases are often there to ensure that the Will goes through probate smoothly. One common term used in Will writing is ‘Personal Chattels’. There is a legal definition of these, but the common usage definition works just as well: 

chattel 

NOUN 

chattels (plural noun) 

(in general use) a personal possession. 

So basically, that’s all the ‘stuff’ that you collect over a lifetime! Some of it is valuable in monetary terms, and some valuable from a sentimental perspective and when it comes to dealing with these as part of your estate planning you have several options. The Society of Will Writers lists these as: 

  • The residue can be distributed – meaning that you leave it up to your family who gets what –  but this could cause disputes between family members. Disputes about the destination of chattels can often turn bitter, often because of the sentimental value attached to them. 
  • The chattels could be gifted specifically in the Will, but it may be impractical to make a long list of chattels and their recipients. It is also impractical for the testator to execute a codicil or a new will every time they wish to change the destination of a chattel or add or remove a chattel or beneficiary. 
  • Leave all the chattels to a specific person, usually the executor, with a request that they distribute the chattels according to a separate letter of wishes left with the will. 
  • My personal favourite is for the testator to keep a list of chattels and beneficiaries that can be kept up to date and can evolve as their possessions and wishes change or their family grows. This list can be changed after the will has been signed and does not need to follow any formalities itself. This avoids having to redraft the will or execute a codicil should the testator’s wishes for their personal chattels change. (although from a Will writing perspective you should always make sure that no specific letter of wishes is referred to as being in existence at the time the will is executed because that would mean that the letter could not be altered without redrafting the Will).  This allows flexibility. 

 I once visited a client whose family had put stickers on various items to show which ones they wanted.  This is obviously not legally binding but does have the advantage of making everyone aware of who wants what, which could avoid disputes later on. 

When you are making a list of chattels in this way you should be careful to describe items clearly, as this could go some way to avoiding arguments in future. It is also important to keep only one list and make sure any old ones are destroyed to reduce any confusion. 

Did you know?:  There is a common misconception that a wife was once treated as a chattel in English Law.  This is not strictly true.  Until the end of the 19th century a husband and wife were considered to be one legal entity, with a married woman not entitled to own property. 

Finally, it should be considered that trusting a nominated person to have control of your chattels after your death is an expression of wishes only and is not legally binding so you should make sure you pick someone you trust to carry out this task for you. If you’re interested in understanding how to appoint trustees for your estate, have a look at this blog on HERE.