How Should an Estate Executor Manage the Clothing and Personal Effects of a Decedent in Florida?

August 5, 2013, will mark the 51st anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death due to a drug overdose in 1962. Marilyn was an extremely successful American actress, model, and singer, who became a major style icon for young women during the 1950s and early 1960s. After her death at the age of 36, Marilyn’s Will was filed in the New York Surrogate Court on August 17, 1962, with the largest slice of her assets bequeathed to one Mr. Lee Strasberg. Strasberg, Marilyn’s mentor and acting tutor, received the remainder of Marilyn’s Estate, as well as her personal effects and clothing, a financial and also sentimental gain. Accordingly, the Fourth provision of Marilyn’s Will reads in relevant part:

(d) I give and bequeath all of my personal effects and clothing to LEE STRASBERG, or if he should predecease me, then to my Executor hereinafter named, it being my desire that he distribute these, in his sole discretion, among my friends, colleagues and those to whom I am devoted.

Because the validity of Marilyn’s will was initially contested by her long-time business manager, Inez Melson, who was not a designated beneficiary, it was not until several years after Marilyn’s death that Strasberg received her personal possessions. Unfortunately, some of the packing boxes containing Marilyn’s clothing and accessories had suffered water damage whilst in storage, and Strasberg arranged to have the items catalogued and placed in a temperature controlled environment. Despite Marilyn’s express testamentary intent to have her personal effects and clothing spread amongst her loved ones, Strasberg never distributed or sold any of Marilyn’s possessions, which included clothing, letters, documents, and furniture.

When Strasberg died in February of 1982, Marilyn’s property was inherited by Strasberg’s third Wife and the sole beneficiary of his Will, Ana Strasberg. In October of 1999, over fifteen years after Strasberg’s death, Anna employed the renowned auction company “Christie’s” to sell the bulk of Marilyn’s Estate. Bringing in over $13 million from the sale of nearly 576 lots, the two-day auction was labeled “The Sale of the Century.” Among the pieces sold were Marilyn’s clothing, shoes, furs, jewelry, cosmetics, and many other items from her very private life.

Unlike with Marilyn’s estate, in the typical estate administration, a decedent’s clothing and personal effects are generally without great value, and often times a testatrix does not specifically express what her estate’s executor should do with these personal possessions. Thus, because clothing and jewelry are still considered to be part of the estate, the question arises: How should an estate executor manage the clothing and personal effects of a decedent in Florida? As with all personal property not otherwise gifted by the testator, fine clothing, jewelry, and other unique possessions should be sold for the best price possible. It is often difficult, though, for a lay person to determine the true value of this style of property, and even more difficult for a Florida court to ascertain whether an offer received is the best obtainable sale price.

Because of the relatively small value of these assets, the potential risk to the estate is most likely slight. Yet, prior to holding an auction or entering into a contract for the sale of unique assets, a potentially advantageous course of action for the estate’s executor would be to solicit bids on the property from several used clothing dealers in the state, with the highest bid defining the inventory value. Alternatively, the executor could obtain the services of a specialized appraiser who handles and is licensed in Florida to appraise women’s clothing, jewelry, shoes, and other attractive accessories. After receiving an appraisal, the estate’s executor, as well as Florida courts, will then have some guidance in determining the fair market value of the property, understandably excluding its emotional and sentimental worth.

Furthermore, if the beneficiaries under the testatrix’s will or other testamentary instrument are in agreement, the clothing and personal effects that have not been devised could be donated to a museum or charity that may be able to provide an indication of the items’ fair market value. Finally, section 733.612(9), Florida Statutes, authorizes the estate’s personal representative to “[a]bandon property when it is valueless or so encumbered, or in a condition, that it is of no benefit to the estate.” Thus, in the case of a decedent who had yet to obtain the unprecedented popularity of Marilyn Monroe, this option may be the most stress-free and efficient way of managing personal property.

For these reasons, it is important for an executor or administrator of an estate to consult an experienced attorney when disputes arise pertaining to these types of unique assets. If you or someone you know needs assistance dealing with the complexities of estate administration or asset appraisal, please do not hesitate to contact the legal team at Chepenik Trushin, LLP.