Planning for Death the Swedish Way

Newsletter | Oct 20, 2017 | Letha Sgritta McDowell

A large part of elder law is helping clients plan for what happens after their death. To that end we, help clients execute wills, revocable trusts, irrevocable trusts, change beneficiary designations, review joint account titling, etc. all with the goal of helping clients pass monetary assets after their death. Many times I’ll be asked to include a specific gift of a tangible item within these same documents, and it consistently gives me pause. There are legal ramifications to including such a specific gift in a will. For example, a specific gift of a tangible personal item can force an estate through probate even if it isn’t otherwise necessary. If that tangible item is a Picasso or the Hope Diamond, then that is appropriate. In the vast majority of cases, the item is much less valuable and, in many cases, the named gift recipient isn’t interested in receiving the item.

A recent article in the New York Times explained what many clients struggle to determine, the next generation, largely generation X and millennials, are not interested in inheriting heirlooms or other tangible person items. There are always exceptions to this, of course; however, many people struggle with either how to have this delicate conversation while their family members are still living, or they struggle with what to do with years of accumulated possessions after their loved ones have died.

This desire not to inherit has been a major change from previous generations and, according to experts, this is the first time in history that the next generation isn’t looking for material goods from the previous generation. This shift away from possessions has arisen for many different reasons. First, many Americans are living longer than ever before. This means that, by the time a parent has passed away leaving tangible items, the children already have a fully furnished household with minimal room for more material goods. In addition, we live in a society which values material possessions, so a fully furnished household is an over-furnished household as well as a storage unit with excess items. Add to that items from a parent and homes of the next generation are crammed with objects.

Another reason for the lack of desire to inherit tangible items is a change in style. The 90s saw an uptick in rich and elaborate decoration with a country style. However, beginning in the 2000s, minimal with clean lines became the new style, leaving lots of parents with the 90s look and feel which was completely opposite from what a young person starting their life was looking for.

Yet another reason is that, for many millennials, they simply don’t have the place to put new objects. Living spaces are getting smaller (think Tiny Houses on HGTV and minimal living space designs from Ikea). Even for children who want their parents dining room set either after they die or when they downsize, they have no place to put them.

So, what is the solution to this growing problem of unwanted stuff? The Japanese Art of decluttering has been a popular movement and the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has been a best seller for years. The Swedish have also developed a concept called “death cleaning.” Death cleaning is based on the idea that the Swedish don’t want to be a burden to anyone, and cleaning out personal possessions to leave a minimal amount for loved ones left behind benefits everyone.

As an attorney, my suggestion is to have a conversation with loved ones about what items they may like to inherit. If there are specific items that a loved one would choose to inherit, be sure to specifically list that on a tangible personal property list. Be sure to encourage loved ones to be honest with their feelings to avoid anyone feeling “guilted” into taking items they may not want or have room for. For those everyday items which do not have appeal to anyone in particular, begin decluttering early and giving those items to a charity such as Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill which will help ensure they are given to those in need who could use the items. Cleaning out and decluttering early is often a gift for loved ones and is often more appreciated than unused items from a storage unit.

Ask Kit Kat – Taming Wild Horses

Hook Law Center:  Kit Kat, what can you tell us about prison inmates taming wild horses out in the West?

Kit Kat:  Well, this is another interesting story. This particular story occurs at a ranch near Carson City, Nevada at a 1,100 acre property. The ranch is part of the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a medium-security prison which serves minimum-security inmates. Approximately 2,000 wild horses can be served there. There is an abundance of wild horses and burros in the West that come under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. One way it is handling as many as 86,000 foals born during the spring of 2017 is to have them tamed or ‘gentled’ at facilities such as the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (NNCC). Similar programs exist in other states such as Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and even California and Kansas. Inmates in those states can volunteer to serve their time at such facilities. It’s a win for both the inmates and the horses, many of whom end up being adopted.

Take for example, the case of John Harris, 38. When he first came to NNCC, he had a bit of a temper. He had worked with farm animals where he grew up in Northern Iowa, but never horses. Initially, when he worked with the horses, he got ‘worked up’ and the horses did too. Over time, he learned through the expert instruction of Hank Curry, an experienced cowboy, that one can get better training results by being calm and low-key. Mr. Curry has come to see his job as being more than a horse trainer. ‘I’m a counselor, a teacher, a horse trainer. You establish pride in the guy and pride in his job, he’s going to be a lot more successful when he gets out of here.’ The training cycle lasts four months. A big rodeo is then held and open to the public. Horses and burros are auctioned off, and the whole process starts again.

It’s a terrific program. As a photographer named Ryan Shorosky, who took pictures of the program during the spring of 2017, commented– there is a ‘beautiful parallel between the inmates and the horses, using each other to get to that next point.’ (Steven Kurutz, “Wild Horses and the Inmates Who ‘Gentle’ Them,” The New York Times, Oct.5, 2017)

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Letha Sgritta McDowell

Attorney, Shareholder, CELA
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Letha Sgritta McDowell is a Shareholder of Hook Law practicing in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianships & conservatorships, and tax law. Ms. McDowell’s clients range from high-net-worth individuals with over $75 million in net worth to families with limited assets.

Ms. McDowell is a past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was named as a Fellow of the prestigious American College of Trusts and Estates Council (“ACTEC”) in 2020. She is certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation (“CELA”) and Board Certified as a specialist in Elder Law by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Furthermore, McDowell is accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. McDowell is currently the chair of NAELA’s strategic planning committee, a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Chapter of NAELA, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. She is the former Chair of the North Carolina State Bar’s Elder Law Specialization Committee and is the former Editor-in-Chief of “Gray Matters”, the newsletter for the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. She is a consultant for InterActive Legal and has worked on several law and technology initiatives including IBM’s Watson project. Along with her experience practicing as an attorney, she has dedicated much of her time writing for national publications including, but not limited to: Wolters Kluwer,, the NAELA Journal, Trust & Estates Magazine and many more.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Asset Protection Planning
  • Long-Term Care Planning
  • Special Needs Planning
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