How to Ensure that Family Heirlooms Don’t Cause a Family Fight

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Oftentimes more important than the money or other assets we leave our loved ones are the family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations. Maybe it’s a tradition in your family that the youngest child is to receive the heirloom from your grandfather. Or maybe tradition dictates that the decision is left entirely up to you. Regardless, if the passing of heirlooms from one generation to the next is not handled with care it can lead to long-lasting family disagreements. It is clearly not your intention that your children not speak because one received a valued, though maybe not valuable, picture of their grandfather while the other received a set of silver that had no emotional value to them.

It comes as a surprise to many of my clients when I tell them that it is more common that the passing of their “things” lead to family infighting than does the distribution of their money. There are estate planning steps you can take to ensure that your heirlooms are not only passed on to those of your choosing but that family infighting is avoided.

  1. Specifically detail in your will or trust who is to receive each heirloom.   Like many things in life, a little planning goes a long way!  By default all of your personal property will be split among your heirs in the percentage you have chosen. Such a treatment for family heirlooms that you wish to go to a specific individual is not appropriate. You will want to create a list. On this list will go a schedule of the various family heirlooms and next to each heirloom you will indicate to whom you wish it to be given. In the estate planning world this list is formally known as a personal property memorandum and if properly incorporated into your will or trust it has the full force of a legal document. We suggest that our clients go over the list with their loved ones during life. This provides clarity on who will inherit what and allows any disagreements to be resolved before it’s too late.
  2. Make a game of it. We have seen some families “auction” heirlooms with outstanding results. What this means is that each family member to whom an heirloom may be given is provided with say 10 credits. As items come up for auction each person may bid their available credits on the item. If an item is important to someone they can bid all their credits. If less important they can bid few or no credits. This process allows the heirlooms most important to each person to end up with that person. You can also have a draft where the youngest, or oldest, family members picks first. Each member follows thereafter in order. I personally think the auction is preferable but to each their own!
  3. Give the heirlooms away during life. Gift taxes are very misunderstood. It’s beyond the scope of this post, but it’s unlikely that the gifting of a family heirloom during life will trigger gift tax. By gifting heirlooms during life you can have a conversation with the recipient as to why you want them to have a specific heirloom and what you hope they will one day do with it. Passing heirlooms during life allows you to appreciate the gifting and forms bonds that will last forever.
  4. Pass on the values behind the heirloom. Too many believe that estate planning equals passing along only money and valuables. Nothing could be further from the truth. Money comes and goes but our values and experiences are where true wealth lies. We recommend that our clients record a conversation to go along with each heirloom. With today’s technology this can be done on the most basic of cell phones. A recording of your voice speaking to where the heirloom came from, why you want a certain person to have it, and what you hope they do with it, may likely be more treasured than the heirloom itself. Helping you begin these recordings is something we care about deeply and we will put you on the path towards accomplishing.

A key component of our Family Wealth Planning Session is advising you on how to pass to your loved ones not just your valuables, money and the like, but your values as well. It’s something overlooked by many estate planning attorneys but it plays a central role in our practice. If you would like to schedule a time to sit down and talk, and experience all that comes with a Family Wealth Planning Session, call our office today at 646.736.7539. You’ll be happy you did.

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