Our Daily Bleg: How to Divvy Up a Loved One's Goods Without Acrimony?

A reader named D.J. writes in with a problem that requires some sensitive game theory, trickier than the roommate dilemma. Note that he is wise enough to flatter you as “intelligent and thoughtful,” so do your best to live up to his bias.

I’m from a family of six and a few years ago my mom passed away. My dad now wants to downsize from a large house and get rid of much of the furniture and other goods in the house before moving. He’d like us kids to work out amongst ourselves as much as possible who gets what items. There are some nice antiques, but we’re not talking about any original Monets or anything like that — mostly furniture and artwork that my folks accumulated over the years at auctions, along with other sentimental items and a large amount of stuff that will probably wind up being sold or donated.

I love my siblings and want to continue to love them after this process is over. Perhaps your intelligent and thoughtful followers can suggest the most equitable way to distribute the goods in the house, assuming there’s a thorough inventory of what’s available for distribution.

I too come from a large family but we had the good fortune to have no fortune left behind to divvy up. What did happen, however, in the wake of our second parent’s death, was that a large personality vacuum arose. All the relationships that used to orbit around our mother were no longer able to do so, and inter-sibling relationships changed a lot. Not always for the worse, but a lot of change. Maybe dealing with that will be a bleg for another day. In the meantime, please give your best strategic advice to D.J.


When my grandfather died, my parents/aunts & uncles/cousins/siblings and we all had post-its. We put our name on something we wanted - everyone was allowed to put theirs on what they wanted whether or not it had someone's name on it already or not. If more than one of us wanted something, we negotiated about that. No fights ensued. Most things that had many post-its were things that had emotional attachment for us, rather than huge value and so it was usually given to someone who could articulate best why it was so meaningful to them. Worked for us.


It's as simple as Yankee Swap!

JF Sullivan

Look into the Envy-Free Fair Division work by Steven Brams and Alan Taylor. The classic fair division problem is "how to cut a cake so everyone feels unenvious of the results?" This problem was easy for a two person problem (one person cuts, the other person selects the first slice) but becomes difficult in the case of multiple players and multiple cakes.

Brams and Taylor actually have a system for giving a set of individuals looking to divide a set of goods and to do so in an envy free and equitable way. I apologize that I can't remember the specifics but in involves all parties getting an equal endowment of points (say 100) which they have to assign to various goods (e.g. 10 for the TV, 1 for the cat...) and once that is done, then you can do this order and switch procedure that, if all the players are honest about their allocations, they should get their slice of the "cake" that cannot be improved (as it would result in the loss of a higher valued good).



Read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which includes a passage describing a method wherein each family member plots each heirloom on a graph of desirability, followed by normalizing everyone's curve.


There were 5 siblings remaining after my mom's death. We published an inventory of available items that could be reviewed ahead of time. We met and drew lots to establish a selecting order then took turns picking the things we most wanted. We went one at a time and picked things. There were occasional groans as a favored item was chosen, but many more shared stories were generated. We shared pizza and memories of mom afterward. It was a loving and fair way to distribute her earthly goods.


I see three possible options:

1. Hold an auction amongst yourselves. However, this favours siblings with lots of money and creates a competitive atmosphere.

2. Sell all the items and divide the cash evenly. This works if no one actually wants the items and they don't have sentimental value; if you can all agree to it, it'll probably be the most hassle-free option.

3. Hold a draft, like they do in sports. Draw names out of a hat to see who picks first. Then each take turns picking an item. You could keep the same order throughout, or reverse the order in alternative rounds, so that the person who got the last pick in the first round gets first pick in the second round. Family members could trade draft picks amongst themselves if there's a particular item someone wants. This would work if there are a large number of items with comparable values; it would suck if there is one or two items that everyone wants.



At Christmas we wrap up a load of presents. We then get two packs of cards. One pack is dealt among the guests. The cards from the other pack are turned over. When you have a match you get to pick a gift which you unwrap and show everybody. After a while all the gifts are distrubuted (you need to have more cards than gifts) but the guests have cards remaining in their hands. From this point on, when one of your cards comes up, you get to pick a gift from someone else. The best gifts will move from guest to guest several times. If you have lots of gifts you can play several times.


One good way to start is to use passive aggressiveness in a positive way to avoid a large argument over all items. You could place a box or hat in front of desired items in the house. Your family members could individually (by themselves and with no spectators) place their name on a piece of paper and place it in the item's box. If only one person tries to claim a particular item, that person can walk away with the item.

Next, this can also allow items which have claims from only 2-3 people to be arbitrated on a smaller scale, instead of the entire group fighting about it and using an item that few are interested in to leverage their taking of something more important to them. It can also possibly hedge out some, definitely not all, of feigning interest in one item by an individual and then conceding it to use to their advantage when negotiating for something that is more important to them.

One additional possibility would be to have a limited number of slips per person, and maybe have them numbered by importance to them. This way, when they go through the "family auction" on their own, they will be thoughtful and deliberate as to what is more and most important to them.

This is just an idea that I amsure will have some downfalls to it that I have not thought of yet, which hopefully will be pointed out through other comments. But it may work for some groups and not others, depending on the family climate. By trying this experiment, however, you can elminate the discussion over items that people are genuinely not interested in and really focus in on the ones that matter. I guess if someone gains a lot of the less popular items, though, it could be a source of friction. Hope something here can help!



The way my family has done it involved stickers - individual family members walked through the house, and then indicated via colored stickers that they would be interested in / (have room for)/ a particular item. This really helped narrow down the possible permutations - if only one person was interested in something, it ended up being theirs.

Then the horse trading started with the disputed items.

The book Cryptonomicon had a scene where the family was outside in a parking lot, moving furniture around on two axes, one being percived monetary value, and the other, emotional value.

As a reviewer stated: "the contentious process of equally dividing all of Randy's grandmother's possessions by reducing their worth to two relatively simple variables, monetary and sentimental value which then have to be crunched by a supercomputer..."

Do you have access to a supercomputer?

Drew Hobson

Check out the strategy in Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson where each piece of furniture is placed on a grid of monetary and emotional value and a formula is used to divide the value equally.


each person rate their top three/four/ten choices (however many makes sense). Low priority yields to high priority (if the chair is Bob's #1 and Ken's #2, Bob gets it). Conflicts at the same priority level play rock paper scissors. Negotiations and trades are allowed if both parties are agreeable.

worked for my sisters and I, at least.


Sell it all, split the money equally!


Perhaps distribute the items in a fantasy sports auction-style draft, rather than the snake-style. Each person is given an equal number of dollars or points or whatever, and then each person takes turns starting the bidding on any given item. If I really want a particular desk, I can bid my entire allotment on it. Or I can bid one point on a bunch of stuff no one else wants.

I would suggest each person is given 100 points, and then go oldest to youngest, then youngest to oldest in picking the item on which you'll be bidding.

Scott W

I wonder if a variant on the fair pie/cake division solution would work. The idea comes from this book: _Fair Division_ (http://books.google.com/books?id=cLUA-sRhJ5QC&printsec=frontcover). I'm sure your intelligent and thoughtful questioner could adapt one of those solutions for himself.


My friend John managed a large family situation 'brilliantly'. He looked for & sold the things that weren't of interest to his siblings, distributing the proceeds equitably. In this case it was most of the investment assets, things that could be appraised, valued clearly & were not sentimental.

Then he hosted a round table of claim your 'special' item(s) with his siblings where they 'worked' out the 'fairness' in a family conversation arriving at consensus. That took leadership with grace and adult behavior. Everyone was heard and given the opportunity to be complete.

Then they had a private family auction where everyone had funds from the initial distribution to 'bid' on the remaining collection of items of interest among them. The auction proceeds were divided equitably.

Anything else was then sold via public auction to the high bidder. I think of his insights often as I see or hear of families having great difficulty working out the distribution of material items.



When my grandmother died, we took an inventory of all of her property. Next, all five siblings and all 13 grandchildren got blank pieces of paper to list things they were interested in. You could write down anything you wanted and put it on a scale of 1-5. That night, one person put all of these lists into a spreadsheet. There were only a few items that had overlap and those were solved by either coin flips or one person getting one item and the other getting the other disputed item.

It worked really well and there were no disputes.

Chad Bergeron

Hmm. A classic thorny issue compounded by there being more than one scale of 'value' (monetary and sentimental at least). I'd start building on a snake draft model (choice order a,b,c,d,e,f,f,e,d,c,b,a, repeat). Setting the initial order might prove contentious, but shouldn't impact the long term balance. A random method (drawing straws) seems acceptable to me. After the choices are all made, individuals can conduct one-on-one trading, or if they're adventurous (willing to do the work), can look for closed-loop trading options.

When each person values the available items differently, you need a method that lets each person use their own valuations. A snake draft does this while smoothing out the early pick advantages.


The best idea is probably an auction in which everyone is allotted the same amount of funny money (eg 500 DJ Family Dinars). However, I find the following idea more interesting:

(1) Randomly assign each item to a sibling. The actual method of assigning it doesn't really matter though it would probably work out better if each person gets roughly the same amount of stuff.

(2) Allow the individual siblings to barter with each other.


For M items and N siblings, make a set of M stickers, each with a number in [1,2,..N]. There should be M/N stickers with the number 1, M/N with the number 2, up to M/N stickers with the number N (rounding if necessary). Then randomly (by drawing, for example) assign stickers to each of the M items.

Finally, the siblings each draw a number from 1-N. Your number indicates which lot you get. Horse trading then follows!

My brother gets everything-he was the favorite

While I love games and auctions (big Vickrey fan), I believe when it comes to family you should not use them. One or more of you will believe that they were gamed or that someone had inside information.

Each item on the list should be designated Ø, $, $$, or $$$ to indicate its relative value. If possible, the number of items in each category should be a multiple of six.

Each child designates his/her preference for items in each category. Draw lots for first pick in the first round of the $$$ category...reverse the order for the second round. In the third round #2 goes first (2-3-4-5-6-1), then reverse that order, etc.

If there is a special connection between a child and a specific item ("Mom always said she bought that picture because it reminded her of me.") it takes preference, but moves that child to the last pick of the next round. If two or more lay claim to the same item(s)...ummm...ask Dad whom he likes more••NOOOOO---ummm...hire a lawyer••NOOOOO.

This is where it gets sticky--if you vote, then you foment family unrest; if someone tries to broker a deal, resentment may arise. However, you drew lots to determine choice order and someone's going to get the pastoral oil of the charming farm and someone will have to settle for the antique lamp. Either way, their respective spouses will call it "junk."