The Equitable Distribution of Family Heirlooms

by Reader Contributors

The Equitable Distribution of Family Heirlooms photo

You want to be fair when leaving family heirlooms but what’s the best way to do it? We get advice from our readers on dividing family heirlooms equally.

Hi Gary,
I have three adult daughters, one of whom has two children, aged 3 and 1. In our wills, my husband and I have left our assets equally to our three daughters. Our oldest daughter probably will not have a family as her husband has grown children already, but our youngest daughter is quite likely to start a family.

However, I’d like to make some plans about how to deal equitably with jewelry that was left to me by my mother and jewelry that I have bought in my lifetime. How do your readers deal with this?

Tips for Distributing Family Heirlooms Equally

We asked our readers, many of whom have already taken steps to distribute their own family heirlooms, to send us tips and advice based on what worked for them. Read on for the many helpful suggestions we received for the equitable distribution of family heirlooms:

Let Your Heirs Choose

Get your daughters together at some point and look at all of your family jewelry together. I am one of three sisters, and my grandmother got us together shortly before she passed away so that we could look through her jewelry and pick out the pieces that we would like to have. The added benefit is that you will be able to tell your daughters the stories and the history of each piece. You could earmark pieces for each daughter so that any issue will be addressed with you there to help.

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Leave Items to First Generation

My first suggestion is make sure each daughter is interested in some of the jewelry. If one of your daughters has no particular interest, have her pick some other item(s) of family value. Have each one pick their favorite(s). If two pick the same item, let them work it out and tell them to let you know what they decide. Make a list of who wants what, and put it with the will.

As for grandchildren, they will have their parents special items from which to choose (some of which will likely be those left by you to their mothers). I would not include them in the process. Leave the items to the first generation.

Get It in Writing

First of all, you are to be commended for taking care of this now. My mother died without a will, so probate was our only option. I don’t have sisters, and my brother and I have no issues, so everything is running smoothly.

It seems you’re concerned about where your heirlooms will end up when the daughter without children passes on. A suggestion would be to divide the jewelry evenly, with the condition that the daughter without children divide her portion between her sisters or nieces (or anyone else you designate) in the event she dies first.

Another way to accomplish equity is to sit your clan down and find out who wants what. This will be a grizzly, uncomfortable and downright mercenary discussion to be sure, but you may discover other ways to be “equal.” For example, one daughter may rather have other possessions and mementos instead of jewelry and would be willing to accept those things instead. An estate attorney (please get a lawyer who specializes in estates) can advise you on your options for this situation.

Whatever you do, make sure it is in writing! I can’t stress this enough. You’d be surprised at the degree to which family dynamics can change at the time of a loved one’s death. Issues of money and property bring out the worst, even in the “best” families. Do not leave the matter to be worked out between the siblings. Grief is exacerbated when instructions are not left for loved ones.

Give Back What You Were Given

When my grandmother passed away, my mom and her two siblings came up with an easy way to divide the estate. They each took home what they gave to my grandparents, such as gifts, homemade items from the kids and photos of themselves. Then, they went in order to pick the item they wanted. Each could pick any item in the house, but only one. It was a simple and fair way to distribute the items without hassles.

Talk Openly

I would talk to your daughters about it. Your daughters may really appreciate certain family heirlooms, and if you don’t know which ones, they may feel hurt when these items are distributed. One of them may want something completely off the wall or suggest that you leave more money to the youngest daughter who is just starting her family. It’s important to openly discuss these types of things. By doing this, your daughters can ask you questions about how you want your funeral handled, and you can express to them what you want.

No Exclusions

In my opinion, you should equally divide the jewelry between the children. If one doesn’t have children, let them know that you would like to keep it in the family and that you would hope that they would leave it to their nieces and nephews. I feel that if you exclude a child who may never have children, you will have bad feelings and family problems.

“Borrowing” Allowed

My daughters solved the “heirloom” question themselves. My husband and I have one very valuable diamond pendant left to us by his mother. I had suggested that when my husband and I die the necklace be sold and the money divided. Our daughters were horrified. They had already decided that they would keep the necklace and pass it back and forth each year at Christmas. The older daughter will probably not have children so the agreement is the necklace gets passed along to children of the next generation with the same provisions. My smaller pieces will be divided among them. Each choosing in turn with “borrowing” allowed between them.

Make Memories

I collect jewelry, but I only buy pieces on days that “mean” something. For instance, I bought a huge diamond ring the day my best friend had her first child. That child will inherit that ring when I die. I bought an emerald the day my son was born, so he gets that stone. My daughter’s first birthday was marked with the purchase of a diamond and tsavorite ring, so she gets that.

Since you already own a collection, maybe you could “create” memories to connect with your pieces for your daughters. Take one daughter out to a play or concert while wearing one of your pieces and then will that piece to her. Wear another piece when one of your children celebrates an anniversary or the birth of a child, and let her have that piece, and so on. It may take a while, but your daughters will always have the stories and memories connected with the jewelry that they inherit. It makes even the cheapest piece of costume jewelry far more valuable when there’s a good memory connected to it, and the memory of “their” day will help ease any jealousy that might be felt because another sibling got a “better” piece.

Reviewed September 2021

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