5 Things to Do Before Passing Down an Heirloom

Passing down family heirlooms can be tricky business.
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Want to leave a legacy future generations are sure to treasure? Then you've got a little work to do. With a bit of deliberate decision-making and information-gathering, your heirlooms will be off to their (appreciative) new homes in no time.

If you're worried about your portfolio's shortage of vacation homes and stock certificates, relax. Most of the keepsakes we're talking about probably didn't cost a mint in the first place; they're valuable because of the sentiments they bring to mind. But, while your memory-rich items aren't likely to come with a title or deed, they can still carry a lot of baggage. Personal property, often too inconsequential to include in estate planning, quickly becomes a sticking point when it's time to divvy up the goods among family members.


That's why getting started now -- even if you're only getting organized for a future giveaway -- can bypass big problems later.

5: Owner's Keepers

First things first: Make sure an heirloom is really yours to pass down. You don't want to give a valuable or sentimental item to your grown child or best girlfriend, only to discover it wasn't yours to give away.

As with many families, you may have generational items in your home that actually belong to someone else. (Hey, we remember living out of boxes until grad school, so we've stored our fair share of treasures in borrowed attics and basements.) We've also been guilty of hoarding grandma's snapshot collection, even though it was never meant to be ours. Luckily, we came to our senses and decided to share. We quickly learned that artwork, photographs and handwritten letters can all be scanned, stored electronically or printed for display. The same goes for big-ticket items, like toys or handmade furniture. Sometimes it's the memory you want to hang on to, rather than the tangible proof; so, taking a few photos can spread the love among the masses. That way, even if an item isn't yours to hand down, you can still share the memories attached to it.


If you take the time to attach a written description to your heirlooms, they'll be even more valuable to future recipients. Get your pencil ready. We've got storytelling tips on the next page.

4: Get Your Story Straight

Documenting an heirloom's backstory gives it more sentimental value.
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Archival-quality paper? Check. Pencil? Check. All the details? Oops! If you really want to add value to your heirlooms, record their history for posterity. Of course, this requires clearing the mental fog that often settles over the particulars of how keepsakes came into your possession.

Sure, it's easy to jot down that your sterling silver photo frame was a gift from Aunt Betty, but do you remember why? (Turns out, it was one of few personal items that survived a house fire. Now that's information worth sharing.)


As you make decisions about who will receive each family treasure, use old photographs to prompt your memory or ask other relatives what they recall. By retelling the personal story behind an heirloom -- whose it was originally, why it's steeped in history, the importance of passing it down -- you'll add to its value. Planning ahead allows you the time to really communicate the story of each piece. This, in turn, makes it possible for the keepsake to become part of the next generation's living history. If they want to receive it, that is. If you don't want your gift to become a burden, check out the next page.

3: Lift the Burden

You may love the old piano currently commanding most of your living room real estate, but odds are your niece living in a studio apartment won't. Even with all the soggy sentimental feelings associated with your best stuff, there are a few practical considerations.

First, figure out whether your children (or whomever you have in mind) will appreciate an heirloom as you'd hoped -- or if they'll simply accept it out of obligation. So ask. And be prepared for the answer. After all, you don't want your heirloom to become a burden. Unless you're the passive aggressive type, but that's a different list altogether.


Next, apply a few stringent criteria. If the item hasn't been especially valuable to you since you've owned it, then it's time to jettison. Part of the keepsake pass-down process is clearly identifying why an item is of value -- intrinsic or otherwise.

If you're holding onto a rare collector item that no one wants to claim, donate it to a local historical society. C'mon, wouldn't it be really satisfying to watch your family keepsake become woven into the area's account of days gone by? If you've got dueling relatives all clambering for a singular treasure, we've got a solution for that, too, on the next page.

2: Take a Poll

Your granddaughter may value that necklace she played with when she was little.
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You'll be tempted to make a few assumptions when gifting your precious goods. But before you do, find out what the recipients remember about the items you'd like to give them. It's entirely possible you'll be surprised.

The objects people associate with value -- most often because the objects were at the center of shared experiences -- may be far different than what you might expect. An ordinary Mason jar that served as a seasonal home to freshly cut garden roses may not be at the top of your "most valuable possession" list, but to your daughter, it may be the source of some great memories. The same goes for dad's baseball mitt.


Remember, too, that what one person may love, another may shun. So don't give the Mason jar to your son who hated pruning rosebushes throughout his childhood, especially if his sister is the one who wants it. That's where your conversation skills come into play. Guide your kids through a preemptive discussion about what they really want. Odds are, they'll help you figure out how to divvy your possessions among them -- or even devise a way to share. A diamond pendant, for example, can be traded between sisters each holiday so that each one may wear it for a year at a time. The system may be unusual, but at least it's fair.

If you're holding back a few giveaways for later, make sure they'll stand the test of time. We've got a few tips for preserving heirlooms on the next page.

1: Become A Preservationist

Preservation has moved way beyond preventing mothballs. So, whether you're planning to pass down a christening gown or share family photographs, get the facts about how to keep them as pristine as possible. After all, a hope chest rotting away in a damp basement isn't going to prompt an outpouring of special memories for anyone.

Besides moisture, direct sunlight is the biggest threat to your heirlooms. Everything -- from fabrics and papers to wooden furniture and photographs -- can be damaged by sunny conditions. Your best bet is some middle-of-the-road climate control. Avoiding too much heat or cold, as well as excess of dampness or dryness, can go a long way toward preserving keepsakes for posterity.


Speaking of future generations, don't feel like you have to save everything, a la packrat. Sometimes setting aside fewer items makes them more special. Plus, your kids will someday thank you for denying them what's become a too-oft rite of passage: Going through mom's things. And by "things," we mean all that junk you've stored away for "someday."

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Minnesota Historical Society. "Preserve Your Family Treasures." MNHS.org. July 15, 2010.http://www.mnhs.org/people/mngg/stories/index.htm
  • Rinker, Harry. "Sell, Keep or Toss? How to Downsize a Home, Settle an Estate and Appraise Personal Property." House of Collectibles, Sept. 11, 2007.http://www.amazon.com/Sell-Keep-Toss-Downsize-Appraise/dp/0375722408/ref=pd_sim_b_3
  • Stum, Marlene. "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" University Extension Services, 1999.http://www.amazon.com/Who-Gets-Grandmas-Yellow-Plate/dp/1888440082