Handling sentimental inheritances
Thursday, 28 March 2019
When you Google “what items should I include in my will?" you probably won't find “grandfather's WWII army medals" in the results.
Typically, the focus is on assets such as property, stocks, cash, art and jewelry. However, it's not uncommon for sentimental family heirlooms like grandfather's army medals to be the source of friction among your heirs after you're gone.
Even after the lawyers have carefully crafted your will and estate plan, it's probably a good idea to take some time to consider how you'd like to pass some of your prized family treasures — like your grandmother's wedding veil or the family Bible — down to the next generation. Here are some ideas about how to keep family heirlooms in the family.
Ask your heirs what items they would like to have.
This might sound a bit morbid — walking around your home asking your family members which items they want after you die — but it makes sense for your children, grandchildren and other family members to have objects they treasure.
You may be surprised which items have sentimental value to your family members. For example, you might not realize your son has always admired his grandfather's law books. But if you ask, you can help ensure each family member gets the items they value and cherish.
There's no guarantee this will go smoothly, however. What if multiple family members want a cherished quilt? Or one person seems to be interested in objects with the greatest financial value versus any emotional meaning? To make sure everyone is as close to satisfied as possible, there will need to be negotiations — some give and take on everyone's part.
Try to balance the distribution of valuable objects with sentimental ones. Perhaps discourage the “pulling of rank" that gives the eldest child first dibs on everything. The idea is to try to avoid conflict after you're gone, but you don't want to create conflict while you're still around, either. In the end, if your family members seem unable to compromise, remember the items are still yours and you have the right to bequeath them to whomever you choose.
Once you've determined who gets what, make sure this information — in great detail — is included in your will. For example, if you're giving your daughter an heirloom dressing table, don't just say “table." Being specific can ensure your wishes are carried out and conflict is minimized.
You might want to give some of the family treasures to your children and grandchildren while you're still alive. Particularly those items you don't use or have in storage. Seeing your family members enjoy the items could be a wonderful experience. For example, it would be thrill to see a grandchild christened in a family christening dress, or a granddaughter walk down the aisle wearing her great-grandmother's pearls.
Provide as much information as possible about your heirlooms.
You will probably be passing on a wide variety of objects, some with monetary or historical value, and others with sentimental or emotional worth. Regardless of which category the item falls into, it's very helpful to provide as much information about the piece as possible.
For objects that have been in your family for many generations — such as a Bible — providing a written history of the item can keep the story alive. Also, if there are books, papers, artwork or other fragile items, advise the recipient how to protect, preserve and store the item, such as keeping it in a safe deposit box or other kind of special storage.
For possessions with significant monetary value, such as jewelry, coins and artwork, including appraisal documentation with the item can make it easier for the recipient to take steps to insure and protect the piece.
Make sure your family members want the items.
Traditionally, women looked forward to inheriting their mother's — and possibly even their grandmother's — china and silver. But people's lives can be very different these days.
Americans are staying single longer, putting more emphasis on careers or getting established financially instead of marrying and starting a family. In fact, the marriage rate overall is on the decline. And because they're not settling down and starting families, fewer young people today are purchasing homes, which means they are most likely renting and could move more frequently.
This more nomadic lifestyle, combined with the fact they might lack space in smaller apartment homes, can mean many younger people aren't eager to claim objects and heirlooms from parents and grandparents.
So, what do you do if your granddaughter doesn't want your grandmother's china? Perhaps offer it to extended family members in order to keep it in the family. If there are still no takers, consider donating historic or antique items to small, local museums or libraries. Useful objects — such as furniture, dishes and other household items — can also be donated to non-profits that can put the items to use.
Regardless of who's getting what, make sure this information is included in your will and estate plan documents.
Your lawyers have probably dedicated a lot of time to detailing how your assets will be passed on, and what happens to great-grandfather's hunting rifle might not seem worthy of their attention. However, these items are part of your family's story. If taking some time to specify who will receive them after you're gone keeps them in the family, it's well worth it.
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