"Family heirlooms" can present a problem when drafting a will or when dividing property in an estate. When I am helping clients with their wills, I have noticed that this is often a sticking point. They sometimes agonize over which family member should inherit an item, a collection, or a piece of land.
Since I help Executors in probate cases, I also see how heirlooms are ultimately divided. I see the agony and the joy that the executor and the heirs go through as the heirlooms are settled in their new homes.
Determination of what to do with heirlooms is so personal. It is difficult to give "one size fits all" advice but here are a few observations.
- "Heirlooms" come in all shapes, sizes and values.
- The monetary value of the object may have nothing to with its emotional value.
- Very often, the value of the heirloom is different to the giver (testator) that it is to the receiver (beneficiary).
- Sometimes younger family members do not feel the same attachment to historical items and may not even want them.
- The value placed on items is very individual and may not be predictable. For instance, your daughter may not care about a vase worth five thousand dollars but may covet an inexpensive piece of costume jewelry worth about $12 that she remembers seeing her great-grandmother wear.
- Keep the personality and habits of your heirs in mind. For instance, if your son is completely unattached to "things" and throws away things of value regularly, you may want to reconsider leaving him your "collection" of anything.
- Inheritance of heirlooms may lead to guilt (someone keeping something because they feel they "have to").
- Someone may hope fervently that they are going to be left an item in your will but feel that it is indelicate to ask.
- If you are comfortable doing so, consider discussing important items with your heirs.
- If you are comfortable doing so, consider allowing your executor to distribute the items as s/he sees fit, rather than specifying a distribution yourself.
- Don't deprive yourself of selling items that you could use for your survival in the impression that you need to pass it down. This also goes for selling real estate. You may be thinking that your heirs would enjoy living on the family land or owning it and they may have no intention of ever moving there and may prefer that instead you take good care of yourself!
- If you are a beneficiary who has been left with items that you don't want and cannot keep, try to look past the conflict that you are feeling. Remember that the item(s) are an expression of caring. That is ultimately the most important thing to remember. If you must sell or give away what you have received, try to do so in a way that honors the person who left it to you. (suggestion: passing it on to another family member or selling it and making a charitable donation of all or part of the proceeds.).