One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Family Heirloom

by | May 26, 2006 | Weekly Column

As a financial planner, I am accustomed to helping clients make decisions on a large scale. In my profession, we often tend to look at the big picture.

Legacy planning, for example, deals with some significant issues such as options for distributing your estate. Do you leave money to children, other family members, or charities? What are appropriate amounts? What is the best way to leave that money?

Many of my older clients are focusing on this type of planning and on finding answers to such big, life-changing questions. One of these issues is how to decide when you or your parents are ready for assisted living. That is such a major question that we have made it the topic of our upcoming quarterly workshop on May 31.

As one of my clients reminded me recently, however, there is another side to legacy planning. It may involve smaller decisions and lesser monetary amounts, but it is not necessarily less important. This is the issue of what to do with treasured personal items and family heirlooms. Disputes over these things can cause deep and painful family rifts.

Dealing Family Riffs Over Heirlooms

It’s tempting to address this issue the old-fashioned way—by ignoring it. That may be fine for today, but it isn’t going to be any help at all years down the road when children are trying to sort out your stuff and decide who gets what.

Here are some alternative approaches, gleaned from several of my clients:

1. Perhaps the most common suggestion was to give things away while you are still capable of making the decisions about them. One woman, for the past several years, has given some of her collectibles, dishes, and other small treasures as Christmas gifts to her children and grandchildren. The recipients are thrilled with the gifts, in large part because Grandma is there to tell them the history of the various pieces.

2. Another approach is to include with your will a list of specific items that you want to go to various people. If you do this, it’s important to keep the list up to date. It’s also good to write down what you know about the history of each item.

3. Stop and think about how to define “family heirloom.” That term isn’t necessarily limited to things that are worth money or that are very old. Great-Great Grandmother’s fine crystal would certainly qualify, but so might the mounted antlers of the five-point buck you shot, the ugly but interesting mirror you have by the back door, or your report cards from elementary school.

4. Ask family members what they would like to have after you are gone. You might want to employ this technique carefully, however. One of my clients recently offered his stepdaughter her choice of the items he had brought back from his travels. She chose a beautiful Middle Eastern carpet, and he said she could have it. The only problem was that he had previously promised that same carpet to his daughter. When he realized his mistake, he had to do some quick and uncomfortable tap-dancing—backwards.

5. Don’t limit your thinking to family members. If no one in the family wants old photos, documents, or other things that might have historical value, consider donating them to a museum. Local museums and state archives might be delighted to receive things that your kids or grandkids would regard as junk. If in doubt, ask before you toss.

Regardless of their economic value, your family heirlooms may hold meaningful memories for those who care about you. Don’t ignore them; they might be a priceless part of your legacy.

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