I recently read about a British clutter expert, who consults around the world, who found that her British client’s clutter commonly consisted of unwanted family furniture and that Americans didn’t have as much in the way of heirlooms but became very attached to sentimental items. As I thought about this, it makes total sense! The longer the ancestral line, the chances are greater for more material heirlooms.
Just the words inheritance and estate carry some implication that there is some kind of worth involved. I think it’s fair to say that the first thing someone thinks of when they hear the word inheritance is money although there can be negative connotations as well like inheriting poor genetic traits. Overall the idea of belongings being passed down usually elicits a positive reaction however it can also bring a sense of dread when the inheritor’s first response is “where am I going to put everything?” I’d like to concentrate on some aspects of estate planning as well as ways to handle belongings that are being passed down.
Prior to the 1960’s and 1970’s, heirlooms probably had a higher monetary value than they might these days due to the influx of cheap goods exported from China. Would you rather inherit solid wood furniture or particle board constructed pieces from Ikea? An estate that has been amassed in the past 50 years may be larger than that of one from the first part of the 20th century however smaller, older estate probably consists of higher quality items. Needless to say, liquidation and distribution are necessary and the level of difficulty will depend on the planning and preparation that the deceased built-in prior to death.
Everyone seems to have a story about Aunt So & So passing and every living relative, friend and neighbor descending upon her home to collect what she had promised them. All too often this is an icky, sticky situation but one that can be avoided. The one sure fire way to be certain that the belongings that you want to go to the designated inheritor is to give it to them BEFORE you are too ill or mentally incapacitated or just plain dead. It’s not uncommon for the well intentioned to tack notations onto the back of furniture or leave in the teapot of the china set detailing where it came from, who it is intended for and sometimes the imagined value. Great idea but it’s easy for those notes to simply be removed as the home is descended upon by family post death and yes, pre-funeral! Another option is a videotaped tour of all of the belongings that are to be dispersed with copies going to ALL of the inheritors as well as the lawyer who would be handling the estate. While this approach may lessen arguments, I’m not sure of the legality of it so the best advice I can give is to talk with your lawyer. Know one thing; you don’t have to have gray hair to start this process. Thankfully there has been a trend toward estate planning at younger and younger ages. Parents are realizing that there is more they can do now to lighten the load on those who are left behind. After all, no one plans on a sudden death or having an accident, that’s why they’re called accidents.
I have helped clients who have beautiful and useful possessions that they are struggling with because their adult children didn’t want to take more stuff into their homes and I have helped estate executor’s deal with a jumbled mass of belongings that defy rhyme and reason. There are some who will take whatever is up for grabs even if they already have 2 coffee makers and that leads me to believe they are hanging onto the physical possessions because they aren’t accepting or dealing with the passing of their loved one. One person’s junk can indeed be another’s treasure but there are times when no one involved has any idea of the monetary value of said junk. Some have their belongings appraised while still alive or it may come down to needing assistance after the fact. Ask your friends, neighbors, and other professionals if they can recommend estate professional appraisers, antique dealers and/or liquidators. Of course ask for references and try to find out how their reputation holds up in the local community. Sometimes unwitting executor’s order a dumpster and start pitching over their shoulders and sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to be done but with some discretion. More importantly, there are some possessions that may seem worthless but have a deep sentimental value.
To avoid these situations it’s best to have structured designation in place. I own what looks like a little crocheted Humpty Dumpty figure that seems very ordinary and would be lucky to fetch 10 cents at a yard sale. However, my grandmother had bought (or been gifted) the little doll from either the Hancock or Mt. Lebanon Shaker village and there’s some personal history with little Humpty that I won’t bore you with. It truly has no real monetary value but sentimentally, it means a lot to me. While it’s safely tucked away with its accompanying story my daughter may choose to pitch it in the garbage after I’m gone but I feel better knowing I’ve done my part to give it the distinction it deserves. With the same energy that I’ve put into Humpty, I’ve cleared out loads of outdated owner’s manuals, donated clothes and shoes I no longer wear or fit, reduced my cookbook collection by about 85% and done other decluttering that benefits myself but will also benefit those left behind me when I’m gone.
I’ve handled what’s been left behind by others enough to know that it can be a real drain and I’m working with clients who want to lessen the load that will be passed on to their loved ones. I advise them to only keep what they truly love, to keep the best of the best and lose the rest. Don’t be put off that your offspring aren’t interested in Grandma’s tea sets, china, glass ware or knick knacks. They are trying to keep their homes from being overrun and they may prefer to keep a few pictures of Grandma or letters she has written to them instead of material things. If you’re cleaning out a kitchen that has been in use for 40 years, be ruthless about 20 year old spices and Tupperware from the 1970’s. Donate what seems like a gift, not a curse for instance, a nice set of coffee mugs but lose the 5 mismatched mugs with broken handles. You’re keeping the “collectible” People magazine with Lady Di and Prince Charles on it because it will be worth something someday? I hate to break it to you but it won’t. Lastly, if you’re keeping some things that were gifts that you don’t really like but feel guilty about. Let them go and embrace the good intentions in which the gifts were given. The gift giver probably wouldn’t want you to feel remorse and guilt over something material. Keep the best of the best and lose the rest.