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How To Make Sure Your Heirlooms Get To The Right People

Passing on your treasured possessions isn’t as hard as you might think.

You’ve probably acquired a fairly impressive (or perhaps voluminous) amount of things over the course of your life. While most might only have emotional or sentimental value, some may veer into precious heirloom territory. Unfortunately most people don’t think about where their prized possessions will go when they’ve passed -- and not since the days of the Egyptian pharoahs have many people chosen to be buried with them.

Even when there is a Will, there might not be a specific outline of how to divide personal property. The obvious reality is your possessions will end up somewhere, whether it's passed on to another person, donated to a thrift shop, or tossed in the trash. While it’s nice to imagine heirs or next of kin dividing your possessions peacefully among themselves, this may not be the case. There could be fighting over things they believe they deserve, which could even end up in court -- or at least make for some very uncomfortable family reunions.

Coming up with a plan ahead of time will reduce stress for your loved ones and ensure they understand any stories behind your favorite items. Being able to hold onto a special item after a loved one's death can provide a certain comfort and security.

The good news is that it’s not time consuming or difficult to create a plan for making sure these items end up with the right people in your life. Here are ways to categorize, organize, and allocate all the things that have deep meaning in your life. 

Getting Started

Start by going through your stuff and separating items into two general categories: decide whether they are valuable or meaningful. You might even approach it like a kind of spring cleaning.

Valuable

Heirlooms or assets that have monetary value. Some examples might include a baby grand piano, real jewelry, fine furniture or carpets, antique collectibles, automobiles, and high-end electronics.

Meaningful

Items that tell a story of your family history, or that hold high emotional value. Some examples might include photographs, letters, journals, crafts, books, kitchenware, favorite clothing.

How do I make sure my valuables get to the right heirs?

Put it in your Will: Large expensive items that you own should be addressed directly in your Will and these assets should be given to specific people, organizations, or institutions. Big items like cars or jewelry lead to squabbles and these types of disagreements can end up in court, where fees can surpass the value of the items people are fighting over.

Name a residuary beneficiary: Inevitably even the most organized people will have a certain amount of leftover items. These are the items you have in your home or life that don’t hold a tremendous monetary value and aren’t worth the effort to itemize – think clothes, furniture, appliances, etc). When you name a residuary beneficiary it’s up to that person to figure out how to distribute, keep, donate, or toss your items.

How do I make sure my meaningful items get to the right heirs?

With a little time and creativity you can rest assured your meaningful items will end up in the right hands.

Write out a letter: While we recommend putting valuables into a Will, a Letter of Last Instructions can work for dividing and distributing sentimental items. You can even add to their value by recounting any known stories associated with the history or meaning they hold. If that antique vanity mirror was your grandma’s, let the future owner know it.

Put Post-it Notes with names on things: If you aren’t ready or able to write letters you can accomplish distribution with simple Post-it Notes. For example on the bottom of a vase you can list technical information about the item and who should get it. One of our favorites stories comes from Everplans co-founder/co-CEO Abby Scheniderman and her story on Forbes.com about a miniature chest drink table.

Create a spreadsheet: Tech savvy people might also want to consider digitizing their memorabilia. You can create a spreadsheet and share or email it to family or friends, or leave the file with the executor of your estate. The more details the better, and you can even include photos of items to clarify. 

Have a party to distribute and explain their value: There’s no reason why you can’t have a little fun with distributing your meaningful possessions. Why not invite your close family and friends over for a party and start the process while you can see their appreciation? This is especially fitting if a person or couple is moving or downsizing from their current home. It can be a great opportunity to ensure they know the full story of the meaning behind items. Plus, you might find out that the person doesn’t want what you’re offering, giving you the chance to offer it to someone else, sell, or donate. (“Dad, I appreciate the thought but I don’t want the grandfather clock…I barely have room in my place for a bed.”)

Once again, name residuary beneficiary: If you have a family member who you trust and knows the special stories behind your sentimental items, name that person as a residuary beneficiary in your Will. This is common in Wills and usually part of an executor’s duties, but you can specify another person who might be more suited to getting your possessions to the right heir.

Written by Ingrid Alt

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