What Do You Consider an Heirloom?

Often when our parents decide to downsize and pack up a four-bedroom house into a lovely two-bedroom apartment in an active adult senior living community, it comes up more than once what they want to do in passing along items of sentimental value to another generation.

That’s a solid and important tradition when your parents are alive, but what happens if it falls to you to clear out a residence or apartment after a death, and you have no idea what is a family heirloom and what is something that just caught their eye? In our haste to vacate an apartment we can very quickly lose patience with exploring what might be in various bureau drawers or curio cabinets.

Sometimes we throw everything in boxes and either take them home with us, ship them home, or donate them to a local nonprofit thrift store. An heirloom is only as valuable as the sentiment behind it. How well are you familiar with the heirlooms in your family?

It could be there’s a small 50-year service pin in a bureau drawer. Did your dad wear that every day of his work career for a single company? Who would he want to have that? What about the last cell phone he used (which ages faster than any car on the road)? Keep or trade it in on another model?

Some of us are sentimentalists, others are just packrats at heart, but we are who we are. Small items can hold precious memories in our hearts that never go away. Did your mom carried a handkerchief in her purse each week, or did she have a favorite pin she wore on suits? You’d be surprised who might love to have that pin. Some moms collect things, like angels or teacups or sets of china. Do you know what is most precious to your parents? Have they told you what they would like to have happen to them eventually?

Have you and your family (assuming that you are an adult child not living at home and perhaps maybe living out of town) had “that” discussion yet with your seniors that talks about what furniture, clothing, or mementoes might be of special significance and definitely worth saving?

Now, this is not a topic that is very easy to bring up after you reach a certain point in life when you are not living at home anymore. However, it’s not uncommon at all for a parent to say, “I remember that Aunt Flo gave me that dining set when I got married so I would have a dining table and a hutch. When we don’t need it anymore, maybe one of her kids might like to have it, unless one of you would.” That’s the perfect opening for you to begin a conversation about things you do and don’t have a special or sentimental attachment to.

Frequently one family member might be especially close to a certain grandparent or a maiden aunt who lived with you all as you grew up and you remember seeing a certain picture in a frame of all the family together that brings back happy childhood memories for you. One distant cousin became a CPA just like her maiden aunt. Neither woman married and so the aunt left all her precious antiques to that cousin, because they were like one another’s parent-child, rather than aunt-niece, so she wanted her to have them. Makes sense.

It’s rarely about stocks, bonds, monies, or property where family disagreements begin as much as it can be a certain wristwatch, photograph, piece of furniture, or other object that an adult grows up seeing every day and associates that item with the person they lost. Sets of good china, linens and tablecloths handmade by your great, great grandmother can turn into true wrestling matches of contention if plans are not made ahead of time.

Although you might laugh at how it sounds, it never hurts to write down in a notebook what you would like to see happen to your furniture after you die. Rarely do people want to buy homes that are 100% furnished, as is. On the other hand, it does happen. It doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience, particularly if the adult generation takes a forthright approach and brings up the subject.

If you happen to watch “The Gilmore Girls,” Chelsea reminded me of an episode where “Emily Gilmore” handed her daughter and granddaughter a pen and sticky pad each and asked them to tag things throughout the family mansion that they might want in particular. The situation was hilarious because the “girls” had no warning the discussion was coming and the parents refused to serve dinner until they’d gone through the house and marked what they wanted. It doesn’t have to be contentious. On the other hand, you shouldn’t spring it on your loved ones, either.

How it does create hard feelings though is when that generation passes away with absolutely no guidance or direction then it becomes a free-for-all if there are no clear-cut instructions in the will left behind.

Something this contentious, though, could create a rift that could last 20 years and cause unnecessary separations between family members who really belong together and should want to be around one another “for the sake of family.” Plus, no matter your opinion before there is a family passing, no one thing, whether furniture, property, or other tangible property would mean a thing compared to having your loved one here with you. So, don’t let “things” get in the way of your pride.

Encourage your fellow family members to wise up and focus on getting along with one another. Often, the youngest family member will find themselves the ones who miss the deceased most of all because they had the least amount of time with them. That’s another factor to keep in mind. Also, there are always family members who want nothing to remember their relatives by.

Even if they say they want no part of inheritance, it’s wise to get them to sign a document to that effect in case something changes in the future, e.g., you all strike oil on a piece of property where drilling had been ongoing for years. Say you strike oil five years later. Now how interested are you in benefiting from your “share” of what would be an equitable split of the proceeds had you not signed them back to the family? Short-term decisions made in haste can have long-term consequences.

However, this happens often. Say there is one family member who assumes primary responsibility for caregiving for a parent or surviving relative because they either live locally or choose to do so, and the other family lives hundreds of miles away, it could be the family comes together and suggests a larger portion be awarded to the one who did the primary caregiving and again it might not happen that way at all. So many possibilities and situations exist among family members.

To preserve solid family harmony after passing of earlier generations, especially when you have another 40 or less years ahead of you, the truth is always the path to take and planning ahead is always the correct idea.

Best wishes,

Cody D. Jones ‘02

Owner & Community Member