“I get the piano when you’re gone!” or “I have dibs on your jewelry box.” Sound familiar? As families age, inevitably, the question arises about who should receive which keepsakes and heirlooms.

Discussions about heirlooms or family keepsakes are avoided in some families because it reminds them that we’re mortal and will die (not a happy subject). However, think about the important memories that the keepsakes, relics, heirlooms, and knick-knacks represent. Wouldn’t it be important to make sure that those items, and the stories behind them are pass on and not passed over?

What is an Heirloom?

For some families, an heirloom may be a ring that has been handed down through the generations. It may be a painting or journal. For others, the “heirlooms” may be simple knick-knack, objects that don’t have a lot of monetary value, but remind us of a special event, trip, or person. Something common among many heirlooms is the sentimental value we place on the item.

Distributing Heirlooms

There are many different ways to distribute family heirlooms. You’ll need to decide which fits your family situation the best. However, not making any decision can be the worst because it can create a lot of contention among descendants as they try to figure out what’s best.

For some families, talking about this sort of thing is taboo, while in others, it may be a frequent discussion. In many cases, there is often a “loud mouth” in the family that always tends to get their way because they throw the biggest “fit” about things. Do you really want to leave things up to that person to decide what is fair? With a little preparation, arguments about who gets what can be mitigated, the dominant person in the family won’t dictate who gets what, and everyone can be better satisfied with a more fair approach.

Before you get started, you might want to identify what are your family heirlooms. For instance, you may have a specific object in mind that is important to you and no one else. Your parent or grandparent may have many family keepsakes that no one else knows about. Take a moment and write down the family heirlooms you have. Encourage your family members to do the same.

To help you out, we created a Family Heirloom/Keepsake Record document that you can use to jot down where those important keepsakes are located and why they’re important to you or the family.

Once you’ve identified the important keepsakes, it’s time to figure out who gets what. Listed below are different approaches and options that various families have taken regarding their heirlooms (some are better than others).

The Heirloom Holder Decides and Helps Coordinate

While the heirloom holder is alive, he or she could help coordinate what’s fair. This option puts a burden on the heirloom holder, but the family will probably respect the heirloom holder’s wishes. One problem with this approach is that it’s not very organized. The heirloom holder will be thinking of things that are important in his or her own life but might forget about items that may be important to the children or grandchildren. You may also find that the loudest person gets much of what they want because they’re making the biggest fuss to the heirloom holder. So, although better than no plan at at, this approach could be improved upon.

No One Talks About it Until After the Funeral

If you want to talk about bad options, this is it. Many families may feel uncomfortable talking about who should receive which family keepsakes, or it may not be something that is thought about until the situation dictates that it’s necessary. The last thing a family wants right after a funeral is to engage in arguments about who gets Grandma’s childhood doll, or Grandpa’s personal journals or pictures from the war. Unfortunately, a majority of families pick this option, not because it’s a good option, but because they don’t think ahead or they’re afraid the topic will be uncomfortable. The problem is that postponing the issue can only complicate matters and make things harder.

The Heirloom Holder Specifies Wishes in a Will

If a family just can’t handle talking about keepsakes, the heirloom holder could specify in his or her will who should receive certain keepsakes. A challenge may arise if the heirloom holder isn’t aware of what family members want. There are probably plenty of little knick-knacks that have special meaning to each family member. If the heirloom holder isn’t aware of what family members would like to have, there still may be a bit of arguing even after the will. A side note, make sure that the family knows where the will is located. The last thing you want to happen is have the family pick out what they would like only to discover a will with different instructions.

Family Members Pick their Top Choices

Suppose you’re the person that holds the heirloom(s). You can specify who gets what. It may end up being a little bit of work, but it can save a lot of heart-ache, arguing, and negotiation among your descendants if you help family members determine their top choices.

Ask family members to jot down:

  • Their top picks for desired keepsakes
  • Why the heirlooms are important to them
  • A ranking (1-5 for example) of the most important heirlooms

Now determine what’s fair. If someone doesn’t get their first pick, give them their second and third picks. Give priority to your children first, then grand children and so on.To help, we created a document you can download and print to help you decide who wants what. You may think it’s a little odd, but hey, why not be open with the family about what you want to happen instead of having them disgruntled years down the road because the heirlooms were given out to those who first came to the house to clean up after you’re gone.

To download the request list and get started with a simple and fair system for distributing heirlooms, click here.

Take Pictures of the Keepsakes and Write the History Behind the Keepsake

This option may sound a little goofy to some, but speaking from personal experience, it’s a good option since there are very few keepsakes that you can divide up between families and everyone takes a piece. I’m descended from someone that rode with Buffalo Bill Cody back in the days of the Wild West, and Buffalo Bill gave my ancestor one of his jackets (the brown leather jackets with the leather strips hanging down the arms). I don’t have the jacket, another family member has it, but I have a picture of it that I’ve stored in my ancestor’s file on my computer. It may not be much, but it’s better than nothing. So for important keepsakes, take a picture and share it with the family.

What We Recommend

Your family’s situation will be unique, so decide what option is best for you. We suggest you:

  1. Identify the important keepsakes
  2. Choose a fair system to distribute keepsakes, ranking each family members desired keepsakes can help
  3. Work on the system now while people are happy and healthy. If the heirloom holder takes ill, it may be an uncomfortable subject to talk about. If you discuss the matter early, it can be a happy discussion as you talk about old memories.
  4. Don’t worry so much. After you’ve identified what you want, it’s still not yours until the item is bequeathed. Relax. Don’t get worked up if something happens to what you wanted. Remember, it’s the memories that the object represents that are important, not necessarily the object.
  5. Take time to write down why the object is important or means something to you. Don’t limit yourself to objects that can be passed on. Write about your first or favorite automobile, house, etc.

What ever you decide to do, we suggest that you don’t fall into the “do nothing” category. Get started early. Enjoy it, and make it fun. It’s like Christmas without having to purchase gifts for the family.