Dispersing Family Heirlooms

What happens to possessions after the owner has passed on? Family members might battle over Mom's emerald earrings, Dad's golf clubs or even Grandma's yellow pie plate.

“It’s harder to divide possessions equally among family members,” says Marlene Stum, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. "You just can't."

“Items are tied to family rituals and traditions," Stum continues. "For instance, the oak dining table might be worth $500 but when you look at the table you don’t see [money], instead you see ‘family dinners with Grandma’.”

While speaking with Midwestern farmers for a social sciences project, Stum learned how hard it is for families to discuss end-of-life planning and solving disagreements over property. After years of research, Stum and others developed "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?", a web site designed to help families talk about the importance of possessions and passing on family heirlooms to others.

Stum herself has dealt with this issue within her own family. As executor of her grandmother’s will, Stum’s mother was extremely frustrated with the division of her own mother’s possessions. While she was meeting with the lawyer, the family went through the house and snatched up the sentimental items before the estate was even settled.

“Legally this is totally inappropriate and against the law,” says Stum. “But many families do this – they run through the house, taking what they want, when really it’s part of the estate.”

Stum also mentioned other problem areas families have dealt with: breaking verbal agreements; a loved one with dementia, forgetting which items are promised to whom; and stepfamilies whose possessions have merged and are now harder to determine which item originally belonged to which side of the family.

“Things get mixed up after divorces. One girl mentioned how hard it was to see her stepmom wearing her mother’s pearls,” Stum says.

Begin the Discussion

Although it’s a difficult topic and “conflict is inevitable,” it’s important to talk about the division of property sooner rather than later.

Stum herself has gone through her mother’s home with her siblings and decided “who gets what.” However, her mother doesn’t like to talk about such things. This reaction isn’t uncommon so Stum and the Pie Plate project leaders developed free articles and tips on how to start this conversation.

Stum highlighted four key steps of action you should consider when starting this process:

  1. Figure out what you hope to accomplish: Do you wish to give certain items to certain family members? Or prefer to donate other items to museums or to sell the items to raise money for other family members? Think about what your wishes might be.
  2. Think about what’s fair: Who should get what? What is the fair process to make these decisions - both now and later?
  3. Think about what items are meaningful to certain family members: Maybe a grandchild treasured a music box you once had; or a sister loved your old baseball memorabilia collection. Have conversations with family members about their connections and feelings towards certain items in your home.
  4. Write a will. Then create a written list, detailing which family member receives which item. It’s probably best to stick to major items at first then add on smaller items. Mention in your will that you have created this additional list and include this list with your will.

Think about your own possessions. Is there an item you’d like to go to a certain person?

“Consider giving possessions as gifts in advance,”says Stum. “Graduations, weddings and birthdays are ideal times to give the items to pass on. You can tell stories that go with the items and respect the traditions in your family.”

Thanks to Marlene Stum and the other researchers behind the “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” project.

Updated: 5/2009