Young woman with grandmother looking at heirloom jewelry

Avoiding Sibling Squabbles Over Keepsakes and Heirlooms

At Surprenant & Beneski, P.C., our estate planning attorneys know that when a loved one passes away, inherited keepsakes and heirlooms can be as important to beneficiaries as monetary inheritance. Because of the deep sentimental value of grandma’s wedding ring or grandpa’s violin, the distribution of keepsakes and heirlooms can, if you don’t prepare properly, become a source of contention among siblings. 

For this reason, it’s important to address this issue thoughtfully as you plan your estate. You should also be prepared to handle this matter if problems arise when an elderly relative passes and you are elected to referee.   

Keepsakes and Heirlooms: Similarities and Differences

Although both keepsakes and heirlooms hold sentimental value, there is a distinction between them. Keepsakes are generally symbols of a particular memory or series of events (e.g. summers spent swimming at a particular location), whereas heirlooms are intrinsically valuable items that have been passed down through generations. Both typically have special emotional meaning and are prized beyond their monetary worth.

Types of Heirlooms and Keepsakes

Jewelry often carries sentimental value and may be promised to a particular family member.

Photographs capture and hold memories, stages of development and things long gone.

Books, Art, and Musical Instruments may represent a loved one’s passion or talent.

Furniture and Clothing can be associated with tactile and other sensory remembrance.

Books, Recipes, and Family Documents often encapsulate cultural, religious, or familial history and traditions.

Collections, like sports memorabilia, artwork, coins, stamps, or doll collections can represent a loved one’s hobbies or interests.

How Keepsakes and Heirlooms Can Cause Friction in the Family

Because heirlooms have greater monetary value than keepsakes, when planning your estate it is critical to understand both the emotional and financial impact of leaving either to a particular beneficiary and understanding that your heirs will likely by comparing notes as far as their inherited treasures are concerned.

Disputes may arise because these items are not just assets; they’re tangible pieces of family history. Differing recall, perceived favoritism, or unresolved sibling rivalries can surface, leading to disputes. The emotional period following a death can intensify these feelings, making fair distribution all the more crucial.

Practical Steps To Keep the Peace

Over the years, our estate planning attorneys have developed several helpful techniques for preventing family squabbles related to the inheritance of keepsakes and heirlooms, including: 

1. Open Communication

Encourage open discussions about keepsakes and heirlooms, if possible, before the family member passes. Knowing the wishes and sentimental values attached to items by each individual can guide decision-making and reduce misunderstandings. By the same token, if beneficiaries understand the thinking process behind the decisions, there is likely to be far less friction.

2. Create a Detailed Inventory

Part of efficient estate planning involves taking a comprehensive inventory of your property and possessions. This should also include a list of all keepsakes and heirlooms, describing each and any associated memories or wishes. This transparency will help manage expectations and clarify your views.

3. Use a Fair Distribution System

Consider systems, such as drawing lots, rotating selection (where siblings take turns choosing an item), or using a points system based on perceived value. This structured approach can prevent disputes and ensure a fair process.

4. Be Flexible

Your initial perception of which item will be most meaningful to which individual may not be correct. Be ready to alter your decision to fit the reality of your loved ones’ wishes. You want them to inherit what is most meaningful to them, not what you think should be.

5. Professional Mediation

In cases of significant disagreement, hiring a neutral third party like a mediator or an experienced estate planning attorney can help navigate the emotional waters and reach an agreement that respects everyone’s feelings. In some cases, it pays to designate a person with diplomatic skills ahead of time whom everyone agrees would justly mediate a conflict.

6. Legal Documentation

Include specific bequests in the will or estate plan when possible. Clearly outlining who gets what can alleviate potential conflicts after the fact. If changes are made, ensure they are legally documented and communicated to all involved.

The Takeaway

At Surprenant & Beneski, we know you want to leave a legacy of warmth and generosity to your loved ones. Contact us to get assistance in making that happen. Our estate planning attorneys have the experience and skill to help you craft an estate plan that takes into account the needs, priorities, and sensitivities of those you want most to enrich.