Family treasures: Who gets what?

When she was a little girl, my mother tells me, she loved to sit at her father’s knee while he played a tiny tin flute. He was a reserved man and the flute was a humble instrument. But on lazy Sunday afternoons, he made the melodies dance across the air, sweet and true, wrapping my mom in a blanket of lifelong memories.

My grandfather has been dead for more than 35 years and the flute has disappeared forever.

“I strongly suspect it was given to someone else,” says my mother, Ruth Righton of Cornwall, Ont. “But when I asked for it, it couldn’t be found.” To this day, an octogenarian herself, she misses it.

Sentiment immeasurable
“The sentimental value of family treasures is immeasurable,” explains Graz Circosta, vice-president of generational planning services at Merrill Lynch Canada Inc. in Toronto. “That’s why it is so important that families outline a method to hand them on.”

In an ideal world, each and every beloved personal possession would somehow find its rightful new owner. But “family communication is an extremely complex area,” says Stephanie Kuiack, a graduate student at the University of Guelph in Ontario who is currentlworking toward her PhD in family studies with a specialty in gerontology.

And there are a number of obstacles when it comes to the passing on of personal possessions.

  • Parents may not be comfortable with the issue of their own mortality–and this is the biggie.
  • They may vacillate for fear of being perceived as unfair.

Plan while healthy
Circosta advises family members to ask for the things they would most like to have. But Kuiack says sons and daughters can play a less specific role.

“The kindest gentlest thing is to sit your parents down and say, ‘Whatever decision you make is up to you. This is your stuff. You get to give it to whomever you please. Just please do it.'”

And do it now while you are healthy, says Markham, Ont., family lawyer Heather McGee.

“A lot of this is psychology. People usually need a life-changing event to act as a trigger. But people in their fifties and up have important possessions to dole out. It is up to them to make a list of everything that could be considered important.”

“The bonus in dealing with this handing on while you are well is that you can explain your decisions to your loved ones. ‘I gave the Limoges to Sheila because she always loved it at Christmastime’ or ‘Larry gets Dad’s big wristwatch because he learned to tell time on it.’ There is a moral obligation to respect someone’s last wishes,” says Circosta. “Especially if he or she has discussed it with the family in advance.”

Next page: Specific strategies

Specific strategies
Even if discussion is not a family strong suit, there are several sound strategies for the disposition of family treasures:

  • Give them away now.

    “The advantage is you are there to witness the pleasure and the gratitude of your loved ones,” says Circosta.

    Because many seniors are downsizing anyway, a move from the family home into a condo, for example, could be the perfect time to pass along small items like that beautiful portrait your first husband painted of a 25-year-old you, or your grandmother’s beaded evening purse.

    It may leave people scratching their heads, however. Recently a good friend of mine, a woman in her late sixties, gave me a piece of art I had always admired with these words, “I just want to make sure everything goes to its proper home.” Was she planning to leave the country or did she have some incurable illness I didn’t know about? I wondered.
  • Make a personal-effects memorandum.

    “A prudent solicitor will recommend a memo,” says McGee. “It’s like a boilerplate will: the ring goes to Annie, the painting goes to Fred.” The disadvantage with such a memo is that it is not legally binding, even if it accompanies a will.

    Still, “beneficiaries can force your executor to be responsible,” says McGee, “if they know such a memo exists.”

    Best-case scenario: mention its existence in the will. But don’t list all the items in the will.

    “It can be cumbersome and costly to distribute them,” says Circosta. “Some of the items may no longer exist.”

    If you have a lot of personal effects, he advises, you can describe a method of selection in the memo. Family members and friends can draw names out of a hat to determine who has first pick or they can pick according to age.

  • Label items of sentimental value.

    “My grandmother wrote out names and taped them to everything,” says McGee. “We found them after she died.”

    The disadvantage in this, aside from the very real possibility that taped name tags can come loose, is the lack of connection in the reasoning behind the gift. “Why did Grandma think I liked her old brown mixing bowl?” “Was Uncle John being snide when he left me his stationary bike?”

    Kuiack says the best thing to do is write an accompanying note about the gift, explaining your rationale. That will help to make the item meaningful long after you’re gone.

  • Think of unusual ways to facilitate communication and action.

    On, one of the participants in a discussion forum suggested a game he called “Pretend I’m dead.” He plays it with his wife and some of his children at least once a year, using the gathering as a forum to discuss all matters and answer all questions pertaining to his estate, large and small.

    Some family members refused to participate, he cautioned. “They considered the game sickening and were not pleased at all with my little invention.”

    Next page: Importance of lists
  • Importance of lists
    Another correspondent was more passive.

    “I told each of my three sons to get an independent appraiser to appraise each article we own, then each son can choose as he wishes, keeping a dollar total. How to settle something more than one wants? I told them I expected them to be able to come to an amiable conclusion. We don’t have a lot but sometimes it doesn’t take much to cause a rift.”

    And rifts can grow into chasms. Madi Legere, 52, of Moncton, N.B., has never forgiven her mother for giving her father’s war medals away. Her dad was a Pole, captured by the Russians before they joined the Allies during the Second World War and incarcerated in a POW camp in Siberia.

    Eventually released, he served with the British forces in Italy and was decorated many times for his courage under fire. As a displaced person, he came to Canada to work for a New Brunswick farmer and married the farmer’s daughter.

    Fifteen years ago, when he died, Legere’s mother handed his medals over to an entrepreneur who promised to display them in a town memorial. The entrepreneur subsequently died and the medals have never been seen again.

    “The war had changed my father’s life completely,” Legere says. “He never got over it.”

    Little things count
    The only memento Legere has: a corps button that happened to be on the blazer her dad wore in his coffin.

    “I had to ask my mother for that,” she says. “I’m going to give it to my nephew when he turns 16. The whole lesson is you have to consider your personal things. I haven’t made a list yet but I will.”

    When it comes to the little things that might make such a big difference, says Kuiack, don’t decide that because your family can’t all get together in the living room to hash it out, you won’t do anything at all.

    “There is no right answer and no correct way to do it. It is fair to take any route. Write it down. Put it on tape. Tell somebody you trust. Just do it,” she says.