5 Tips for Dividing Up Your Family Heirlooms

will pen heirlooms
The more things are spelled out, the easier on surviving family.

Losing a family member is an experience that can test even the bonds of blood. Take grief, throw in a little stress and then add some valuable family heirlooms, and you have a recipe for disaster. People do unusual things in the throes of sadness, especially if there's an expensive antique dining table for the taking. You love your sister, but that table truly doesn't go with anything in her house. And that brother of yours, the prodigal son, all but ditched the family years ago, so he certainly shouldn't be able to lay claim to it. That table is rightly yours; Dad would have wanted it that way. Unfortunately, he never put it in writing.

You, too, will eventually pass away, leaving heirlooms for your loved ones. The decisions you make now will ensure the smooth transition of those valuables to the next generation.


Here are five tips for divvying up those heirlooms, whether you're on the giving or receiving end.

5. Appoint a Trustee

Let's say Dad passes away and leaves a half-million dollar estate to be divided equally among his three children. Trust us, you're going to need some professional guidance to make this happen in the smoothest possible manner. Even families that get along and communicate well end up having a difficult time with self-administration of a will. The first thing you should do is mutually agree on a trustee. It won't be cheap, but you can split the cost equally. The financial and personal risk of not hiring a trustee is much higher.


4. Take Care of Business in the Living Years

butting heads heirlooms
There's nothing worse that going head-to-head with a relative over who gets what.

The easiest way to make sure the heirlooms you want to leave to particular offspring end up in their proper places is by making it clear to all parties involved and on paper. Don't leave it to the children to decide what happens after you're gone. A little foresight and planning could spare the family a lot of fighting. When you make your list, don't presume that an item of little monetary value should be excluded. Put some thought into items that may have sentimental value to each of your children. You can even ask them what items mean the most to them. Once you have everything divided on paper, hand it over to your attorney to make it legally binding.


3. First Generation First

Heirlooms become heirlooms when family members pass them down to their children. When it comes to dividing up your valuable items, don't skip a generation and give things to your grandkids. Part of the value of an heirloom is taking possession of it with the knowledge that it will one day go to your children. Your grandkids will, presumably, be receiving items of interest from their parents someday which represent a unique aspect of their relationship. With a few exceptions, you should leave your heirlooms to the very next generation.


2. Choose From a Hat

lawyer people heirlooms
Legal help and communication can go a long way.

This sounds silly, but it's actually a pretty good option. If left to rationalize who gets what, children will spend days, weeks and months making the case that they deserve that armoire more than their sibling does. For items of similar value, why not leave it to fate? Write down items categorized by similar value, put them in a hat and take turns choosing. Make sure you all agree that you'll be satisfied with any of the items. You can even add a "white elephant gift" twist by allowing trades as long as everyone agrees to the terms.


1. Draw Straws

This is another one that sounds like a playground solution, but it works. (Remember, your goal here is to get everything split up as quickly and painlessly as possible.) Divide the items into groups based on sentimental and dollar value, then draw straws to determine the selection order. If you get the long straw, you go first. Second longest goes next and so on. Once the order is determined, choose one at a time from each group until everything is accounted for. This is a speedy way to avoid some nasty fights over who should be getting what.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • "Birthright." Bible-history.com, 2010.http://www.bible-history.com/isbe/B/BIRTHRIGHT/
  • "Casting and drawing lots: a time-honoured way of dealing with uncertainty and for ensuring fairness." Jameslindlibrary.org, 2010.http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/essays/casting_of_lots/casting.html
  • Dickinson, Amy. "Families: Hey, You! That's Mine!" Time.com, March 4, 2002.http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1001946-1,00.html
  • "Do you have tips on transferring non-titled property?" Usu.edu, 2010.http://extension.usu.edu/htm/faq/faq_q=235
  • Hiersekorn, David. "Avoiding the Fight Over Family Heirlooms." Newportlegacygroup.com, 2010.http://www.newportlegacygroup.com/?p=360
  • "How to Distribute Heirlooms." Stretcher.com, 2010.http://www.stretcher.com/stories/04/04oct11a.cfm
  • "Probate." Efmoody.com, 2010.http://www.efmoody.com/estate/probate.html