Heirloom Handoff: How to Handle Family Treasures

By Denise May Levenick Premium

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As a young married woman, I had a new home and little cash for furniture. So when my in-laws offered us their sideboard and huge grandfather clock, I was happy to accept. Their furniture filled up the space while connecting us to the past.

But like many people, I wasn’t willing to take every family hand-me-down. I preferred antique looking pieces. My mother decorated in midcentury modern style, a clear rejection of her parents’ Depression-era, make-do decor. Predictably, I turned down most of my parents’ furniture offerings when they downsized in the early 1980s.

And so the cycle continues. Today, many young adults don’t want their parents’ “brown” furniture, says Cynthia Abernethy, a veteran estate sales dealer in Southern California. “They don’t want anything traditional; they want their house to look like HGTV.” After helping families downsize and dispose of estates for 27 years, she’s seen heirs reject a lot of furniture, dishes and knickknacks. She says people usually keep family photos— even unidentified ones—and papers, such as letters and diaries. But collectibles and furniture are tough to even give away.

Whether you’re planning the distribution of your own treasures or you’re dealing with a lifetime’s worth of a loved one’s stuff, you want to avoid burdening family. But you also want to secure the best future for the gilt-rimmed tea set and family research files. Generally, you’ll consider three possible “dos” for each item: distribute it to heirs, donate it somewhere, or discard it.

There’s one important “don’t,” too: Don’t put off thinking about this. Read this article and then consider which of the three following routes to take with your own favorite heirlooms.

1. Distribute to Heirs

As part of an overall estate plan, many people set up irrevocable trusts to distribute inherited money. However, the successor trustees or heirs remain responsible for distributing real estate or personal property, or converting it into cash. You can help your heirs avoid stress and negotiate differences in opinion by discussing your plans for heirlooms now.

When my mother passed away, my sister and I served as trustees for her estate. We had to clear her home of furniture, dishes, clothes and other household goods before it could be sold. Fortunately, Mom had a keen sense of personal and family history. She’d been curating photos and family treasures for several years and had already distributed most items to family members. Tucked inside other items, we found notes identifying previous owners, memories or family stories. “Wedding gift, 1954” read a note kept with a cut glass serving tray. Another label said, “Received this as a gift from our Japanese exchange student in 1969. She came back to visit and brought this tea set.”

Mom’s advance planning, distribution and instructions were the best gifts she could have given us. It made our job easier in those first grief-filled months. My sister and I knew exactly what heirlooms to look for and which grandchild was to receive a favorite ring or painting.

This is a kindness you can do for your heirs. With your detailed instructions in hand, they’ll know they’ve carried out your wishes as much as possible, instead of guessing what you would’ve wanted. Discuss these questions with loved ones:

  • Who might carry on your research or become the caretaker of your photos and documents? Use a form like the Genealogical Codicil in How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books) to leave instructions for your genealogy work. You can ask your estate attorney to include the codicil in your will, but it doesn’t have to be a legal part of your estate plan. 
  • Who will want major heirlooms such as furniture, art, clocks and jewelry? Be honest about their monetary value. Have items appraised if you aren’t sure what they’re worth. Distribute these items now if you’re downsizing. Or if you want to hang on to them longer, ask your attorney about distributing them in your will. 
  • What other items have sentimental value to family members? Consider gifting these items now, as well. 
  • What items will you donate, and why? Perhaps you want to prevent hurt feelings, or maybe no one has the space for them. 
  • What stories about the heirlooms should you share to help your family understand their value to your heritage?

You’ll also need to consider these questions as you’re sorting through a relative’s possessions. If you’re faced with a deadline to empty a residence, try to move the items to other storage so you’ll have more time to deal with them. Once the most meaningful and valuable items are accounted for, you might give relatives a week or so to visit and choose what they please. Let them know that anything left by a specific date will be sold or donated.

2. Donate to an Archive

Family historians are often surprised to learn that archives and museums welcome historically significant donations from personal and family collections. You don’t have to be rich or famous to have items of interest. While your family may lose personal possession of their treasures by donating them, you’ll gain the satisfaction of sharing them with others—and freedom from the responsibility for possibly fragile, one-of-a-kind artifacts.

Sierra Green, archivist at the Detre Library & Archives of the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., recently attended the center’s appraisal event. The public was invited to bring family treasures for a financial valuation, “Antiques Roadshow” style. “One visitor shared a small collection of posters and artifacts that had belonged to a woman in her husband’s family. She was a suffragist and the items documented her role in the early suffrage movement in Pittsburgh.”

After learning about the collection’s significance to women’s history in Pittsburgh, the family decided to donate the items. Today the poster, campaign sash and other artifacts are part of the Heinz museum and archive collections.

Potential donors will need to do some research to find the best home for heirlooms. First, brush up on the history that your family collections represent. Then seek repositories with an interest in those kinds of stories. “The Heinz History Center has a strong geographic focus on Western Pennsylvania,” Green notes. “Items that don’t fi t our focus might be welcomed at another repository.”

Green suggests studying the archive, library or museum website to learn about its mission, acquisition policy and collection priorities. Some repositories are research facilities. Others focus on public access and exhibitions. Still others aim more for an online presence.

Whenever possible, compile a collection of items to donate that tell a cohesive story, such as your grandma’s letters, uniform and medical bag from her time as an Army nurse. Then contact potential repositories. Green encourages potential donors to prepare photos and descriptions of significant items and even write a biographical sketch of your family to present to repository. Finally, wait patiently for a response. Small facilities, such as local historical societies, may rely on a volunteer acquisitions committee.

Ask potential repositories these questions: 

  • What are the terms on a deed of gift (the document that records your donation without being compensated in return)? Read the Society of American Archivists’ pamphlet “A Guide to Deeds of Gift” for an overview of transferring ownership and legal rights of private property to a repository. 
  • What does the archive request regarding intellectual property rights to the donated items, digital rights and other issues? Is their request acceptable to you and your family? 
  • Does the organization have resources for processing your collection in a timely way, and making it available to researchers in person or online in digital format?

3. Dispose of the Rest

After dividing the best or most meaningful goods among heirs and donating historically significant items, estates are reduced to things the family doesn’t want. If you’re the one who’s downsizing, it’s smart to identify and offload some of these things now.

Joe Baratta, a personal property appraiser and vice president at Abell Auction Co. in Los Angeles, sees scores of such things at his company’s weekly auctions. “People don’t necessarily have the same size home they did when they grew up,” he says. Homes now have great rooms instead of formal dining and living rooms, so there’s no space for fancy dining sets, crystal and pianos. Formal dining furniture and accessories are the most difficult kind of heirloom to rehome. Baratta adds that people are living longer. “By the time the next generation inherits an estate, their homes are already furnished and they don’t want or need their parents’ things.” Those heirs may be trying to downsize their own homes.

He also notes that the Millennial generation, now ranging from young adulthood to midlife, seems to prefer experiences to material objects. “When my parents and grandparents went somewhere, it was a big event,” Baratta says. “They brought trinkets home to remember the trip. Now, Millennials want the experience, but not the things.”

In other words, your grandson may value the memories he’ll create by selling your Wedgewood china service to fund a trip abroad, over the china itself. Try not to take it personally. Your associations with an item—the memories you attach to it—aren’t the same as your grandson’s, and that’s okay. Perhaps your treasured piece has served its purpose just by being special to you.

But it’s worth reiterating the importance of talking with heirs before selling or giving away your stuff . Maybe they’re the exception to the trends. Your mahogany buffet may perfectly fill a space in your niece’s renovated Victorian house (though she may paint it purple). When it’s time to divest yourself of the unwanted possessions, you have several options for selling them:

  • Auction houses such as Abell’s work well when you don’t want to open the home for a public sale (for example, following damage from flooding), or when you want to dispose of a limited number of items. These services might pay a flat amount for a houseful of stuff, or sell select items on commission. You also could use online auction services that specialize in estates, such as Everything But The House. 
  • On-site estate auctions are practical solutions for liquidating everything from personal clothing to furniture and household cleaning supplies. In rural areas or small towns, auction services might hold estate auctions in family homes, much as they’ve done for hundreds of years.

Estate sales, in which items are sold garage sale-style, are common in metropolitan areas and in popular retirement locales like Florida and Arizona. This is a good option if you want to go the DIY route.

Whichever option you take, it’s important to have items appraised to determine the market value. That will help you be more realistic about your expectations: Sentimental attachment to an item doesn’t always translate into monetary value, not does the amount you may have paid for it. The price you can get depends on what today’s market will bear.

Turn to estate attorneys, realtors and senior transition teams for names of reputable estate sales agents in your area. “It’s important to find a good agent,” notes Abernethy, who suggests visiting sales to see how they’re managed. Known as “the queen of LA estate sales,” she’s run more than 1,000 successful events of all sizes. Her potential customers often line up before dawn for the first crack at the merchandise. She cautions against hiring an estate agent who’s also an antiques dealer. “Many times they are looking for goods for their own shop, and not necessarily for your best interest.

You also want an agent who attracts quality buyers. Look for someone with a large customer email list, and get yourself added to the list to see what messages look like. A good agent will be able to price things appropriately and help you sell it all. The most successful sales include something for every budget. Little things, from kitchen towels to castoff rain boots, can add up to sizable sales.

If you decide to DIY a sale, be prepared for some hard work. You’ll need to advertise the sale in newspapers, on local community and garage sale websites, on Facebook, and even on Craigslist. You’ll need to sort, clean and price the items, stage them on tables, and recruit friends and relatives to staff the rooms (this discourages “sticky fingers”). Buyers will pick up, inspect and move items. They’ll want to negotiate prices. It can be difficult to watch strangers handle and judge your family’s possessions.

You’ll inevitably have leftovers—or you might want to skip the sale and get things gone ASAP. Before adding to a landfill, take the opportunity to support a thrift shop whose sales benefit cancer research, animal welfare or another charitable cause. The nicest items might benefit a school or church fundraiser. Some places even do pickups. Be sure to ask for a donation receipt for income tax purposes.

Maybe too little time or too much distance make your task overwhelming. Once family has had a fair chance to choose from a deceased loved one’s worldly goods, there’s no shame in declaring the rest is too much to deal with. Junk removal services will haul it all away for a fee. Typically, they’ll try to sell or donate some things, and trash or recycle everything else.

Finding a place for everything

In the end, you often can find happy homes for most of your family’s accumulated items, both the cherished and the mundane. Heirs may or may not want it. But archives, antique enthusiasts, bargain-hunters and charities may be looking for the very items you need to give up. Mom’s prized “brown furniture” might have a future as a new family’s heirloom. Even if it’s painted purple. 

How to Archive Family Keepsakes

Find tips to inventory and preserve your family collections in How to Archive Family Keepsakes by Denise May Levenick.

A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites.

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