Payment © Tetra Images, SuperStock

The death of a parent is a difficult time, and even modest estates will attract "vultures" -- people who take advantage of the opportunity to swoop in and snap up what they can. Spouses are well advised to stay in the background.

Dear Liz: My mother-in-law died a few days ago. My niece came to visit the evening of her death. Within 12 hours, she was picking out which jewelry she wanted.

She was at the home while we were going through jewelry and clothes for her grandmother to be buried in. She has asked for Grandma's cross-stitch, and I saw her take a pair of earrings in a box.

I don't want to start a fight but I think she needs to back off. Grandpa is still alive. He is 80 and not healthy. He cannot hear very well and is distraught about his wife's death. How do we handle this? -- Tracy

Answer: You don't. Your spouse and his siblings should.

Spouses should stay in the background as much as possible when families are discussing the estate distribution, said Julie Hall, author of "The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff." What you see as helpful or even protective advice might be interpreted as intrusive and out of place. That can create hard feelings at a time when people already may be having a difficult time dealing with their emotions and getting along. In short: If she wasn't your mama, stay out of the drama.

Even small estates can set off battles over property among relatives, friends, neighbors and even strangers hoping to pass themselves off as close to the deceased. Having a plan can help ward off the predators.

The siblings should meet and agree that nothing is to be removed from the home until your mother-in-law's estate is properly settled. Otherwise, they're inviting a free-for-all, with people deciding to help themselves to what they want. Any items taken from the house should be returned while the estate is settled.

If your mother-in-law had a will or living trust, it will provide some guidance about who gets what. It may even spell out who should receive those earrings and the cross-stitch, or she may have drawn up an informal list of whom she wanted to inherit personal belongings.

If she didn't have a will, state law kicks in. Typically, whatever's left over after the funeral expenses and creditors have been paid is divided between a surviving spouse and any children.

It's the role of the executor to inventory the deceased person's assets and debts, pay the creditors and distribute what's left. Without a will, state law also determines who is eligible to do the job. Surviving spouses top the list, followed by adult children.

The executor may hire an appraiser to put a price tag on more valuable items. This can help the executor make an equitable distribution and forestall arguments about who's getting the best deal.

Image: Liz Weston

Liz Weston

One way to avoid protracted fights over stuff is to have each sibling create a "wish list" of items he or she would like from the estate. Expressing a preference doesn't create the right to any given object, but the wish lists can help guide the executor's decisions. If more than one person wants an item, families should look for creative, caring ways to solve the impasse, Hall said.

Families can use a variety of methods to divvy up personal property include taking turns making a selection, drawing straws and having an "auction," where each person is giving a real or imaginary amount of money to bid on the items he or she wants.

Hall, a certified personal property appraiser who has assisted thousands of families in managing estates, recommends that your niece and any other grandchildren not be part of this process. If her parent wants to ask for something on her behalf, that's fine, but it should replace one of that parent's own requests, Hall said. (In other words, those with kids don't get to ask for more stuff than those without.)

Another behavior to avoid is putting pressure on Grandpa. No one should be appealing to him in secret for anything. All discussions about possessions should be shared with everyone, either in person or via email. Committing to this can prevent a lot of bad feeling and quell suspicions that some people might be angling to get the best stuff.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

Ultimately, though, everyone should keep in mind that stuff is just stuff. What seems like an heirloom now -- something worth fighting viciously over -- may wind up in the next generation's yard sale. When emotions start to run high, everyone should consider whether any object is worth creating a rift in the family.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.

More from Liz Weston