Dividing Up Family Heirlooms When Downsizing

by TDS Contributors
Tips for Dividing Up Family Heirlooms when Downsizing photo
If downsizing is pushing you to pass on family heirlooms now rather than once you’re gone, you might be worried how to do it without creating family drama. These tips can help you divide up heirlooms while keeping the peace.
Hi Gary,
Once my husband retires after the first of the year, we will be downsizing to a smaller living space. I would like to go ahead and pass on some collectibles, antiques, and family heirlooms to my adult children since we will not have room in our new place to keep them. We do have a few pieces of value and have not figured out a good way to divide things evenly. Does anyone else have any advice from their own experience for dividing up family heirlooms/possessions without causing any family drama?

Thanks so much.

Tips for Dividing Up Family Heirlooms when Downsizing

We reached out to our 50+ readers to see if anyone who had already been through the process of dividing up and passing on family heirlooms had any tips for doing so while keeping the family peace. We had quite a few readers share their experiences and advice. Read on to see if one of them can help you.

Keep It Fair When Dividing Up Family Heirlooms

When my parents passed away, we simply drew numbers (there are 7 of us), and we took turns picking things that meant something to us. When we all picked the first thing we wanted, the person who picked last then picked first and we went backwards. After every two rounds of picking, we drew new numbers and picked items again. It worked very well for us. I hope that makes sense.

We were also very accommodating to each other, reminding each other that these were just “things” and not our parents. It was a good way to remember and honor our parents by not bickering over “stuff.”

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Equal Value Versus Esteemed Value

Make a list of items that will become available with space for notes. Let family members know that they can express interest in their favorite items, perhaps adding a “star” if an item has personal meaning to them. Add names to each item listing as notification is received. It may be wise to set a time limit of two weeks. Items with no interest shown in them get donated without guilt. Items with multiple names may require a family gathering and discussion. Have fun! No arguments allowed!

We found that mom’s expectations were sometimes not realistic. That beautiful piece of furniture imagined sitting in one daughter’s house didn’t fit with decor or was highly desired by another sibling. Even though the division of items did not appear to be “equal” to mom, the esteemed value of the items each would receive was just right in our eyes. Our names were written and taped to the bottoms of practical items, and a proper inventory list was made, so there would be no confusion later on.

We did this when the first downsizing was done, and it worked so well that it has been extended to an inheritance listing. Mom has been thrilled to be part of the process and is settled to know that this part of the end is already in place. The agonizing over “being fair” to each one was fully removed and we are happy with the results.

Ask Why

Make a list of items to be divided. Hand that to each person who is to get something. Have each person pencil in which items they would like to own by order of importance to them. Some things will be easy. With others, you will need to make a decision on future ownership. Also ask who would like to take possession immediately. If several want the same item, they can list reasons why they want that particular item (emotional, sentimental, financial, etc.).

I find it commendable that you would like to share now. This will make it easier for everyone.

Keeping Family Heirlooms in the Family

We had this situation when we moved our parents into a nursing home. I asked my siblings what was their favorite piece of furniture. Everyone responded with a favorite. Only two of us wanted the same thing. We both agreed who would get the piece. All five of us agreed that the furniture would stay in the family, and if we could no longer keep it, we would offer it to another family member.

The value of the furniture was not considered when we all chose a piece of furniture. It was all about sentimental value and keeping it in the family.

Keep It Conflict Free and Fun

When it was time to divide up the things my parent had acquired, we had an interesting approach. We three (sisters) got together at their home and we each had a page of different colored dots. We spent time placing dots on the pieces we were interested in. If there were three dots on an item, then we negotiated, discussed, and even explained why we wanted the piece. We each seemed to end up with things we cherished or that reminded us of a good memory we had with our parents. There was no real conflict and we had a really fun week of memories packing up their home.

The High Roll Takes It

When my Grandma died (20 years after Grandpa), her six adult children gathered to empty her home. They opted to use sticky notes and a pair of dice to keep it fair. Each “kid” got their own color sticky note and affixed it to any item they wanted. If there was more than one sticky note on a particular item, they rolled the dice and the high roll took it. At the end of the day, anything without a sticky note was sold (with proceeds returning to the estate) or donated.

Each one of the kids ended up with a mixture of items of sentimental as well as financial value. The biggest ticket items (house/car) were sold and divided equally through the estate. There were no hard feelings and zero drama.

Dividing Up Family Heirlooms Early Eliminates Problems Later

It may not be as difficult as you would imagine because not everyone looks at things with the jaded eye of solely the value involved. When my mother was ready to downsize, she called me and my sister over for a leisurely weekend. During that time, she pointed out everything she was interested in giving away. She gave some of the items to us then. With the items she wanted to keep for her new place, she put a tag on the back or bottom that said who it went to. There were a few items that nobody wanted. For those, we scheduled a pick up by the local charity thrift shop. When she passed, there were no arguments because we already had our say.

Use Order of Closeness

My great grandmother had a garage sale and family was invited first. I think her children had the first choice and then other people were invited in order of closeness. We all paid for the items, which helped out Grandma. I was able to pick up a few items that I would never have known I wanted like her rolling pin and an old-fashioned water pitcher that she had made in a ceramics class. They are simple things but they mean a lot to me and nobody else wanted them.

If a parent did not want to charge their children, they could use fake money and give everybody a set amount. I liked that we were invited over by closeness to the family. I would have felt terrible to take something that a child or grandchild had special memories of and the things I did take are special to me. I think of her every time I roll out a pie crust.

They May Not Want Much

Talk to your children. Many boomers are running into this problem. What you call collectibles and heirlooms they may see as clutter they have to deal with when you are gone.

Instead, ask each of your children if there are things they want when you downsize. After each has chosen, have a garage sale or sell truly valuable items online. You could also contact an auction house if there are a lot of antiques or valuable items left after your children have what they want from your things.

The money could be set aside for your children, used for retirement expenses, or used for traveling if that is part of your plans.

You May Be Surprised When Dividing Up Family Heirlooms

Let each family member make a list after you have decided what you don’t want. Make sure they understand this is a wish list. If more than one wants an item, let one person have first choice and then others move ahead of them until everyone has an item of their choice. When we emptied my mom’s house, we told her grands to come and take what they wanted. My sister said that all they took was junk! To them, it wasn’t junk. Instead, it was special memories. Don’t be surprised if no one wants the family silver, but everyone wants the worn out old cookie jar.

Reviewed October 2022

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