When dealing with an estate, an increasing problem for executors is the valuation of assets in the form of the chattels of the deceased. In probate terminology, chattels are the ‘everyday’ assets such as furniture and ordinary possessions, as opposed to houses, investments and the like. These latter assets are relatively easy to value as estate agents and other specialist valuers can be called upon and in the case of listed investments, their market values at any point in time are readily available.
One difficulty is that an increase in wealth and estate values generally has brought an increasing number of estates into the Inheritance Tax (IHT) net. Where the value of the estate is well below the IHT threshold (£325,000 for 2011/12), even placing a relatively optimistic valuation on the chattels would probably not create an IHT liability. Where IHT must be paid, however, a realistic and justifiable open market value must be ascertained.
A second aspect of the rise in living standards is that it is more normal than it was in the past for people to have a substantial value in chattels. A side issue arising here is that many households may have an insured value for ‘contents’ which is well below the actual value of their household contents.
In general terms, when valuing assets for probate purposes, the appropriate valuation is the ‘open market value’ – the value for which they could be sold if a bargain were made between a willing buyer and a willing seller. Specialised assets, such as works of art, stamp, book and coin collections and so on, should be valued by a professional valuer if likely to be of significant value. Cars can be valued by reference to a trade guide and boats by a yacht broker.
Any items specifically mentioned in the will should be separately valued and, as a rule of thumb, individual items worth more than £500 should be assessed individually. Items which are widely traded (such as musical instruments) can, in some cases, be valued by reference to the prevailing prices on Internet auctions.
Another problem that is becoming more common occurs when there are a number of chattels, some of which may be valuable and some of which are not, and the relative value of each is not easy for the executors to know. Where the executor is likely to have the contents of the house cleared, it is possible for quite valuable chattels to be disposed of for little value or even thrown out.
When chattels are being distributed (say where there are three children, each entitled to a third of the chattels), it is also important for values to be known, because the distributions made will need to be equal unless agreed otherwise by the beneficiaries. Since many assets are in the form of sets (china and furniture for example), some horse-trading may need to be done and having an idea of the values of the different chattels will prove helpful.