Ultimate Guide to Dealing with Sibling Rivalry and Family Heirlooms

family heirlooms
Is this what you want your next family reunion to look like? If not, then be smart about how you deal with the issue of heirlooms.
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Heirlooms can be treasured mementos of family members and eras past ... or they can be several thousand kilotons of TNT dropped into the center of a nuclear family. Even siblings who generally respect each other can start up a feud over well-intended, but poorly received, bequests.

Parents' handling of the heirloom process has a lot to do with how smoothly things will go after they've passed. On one end of the spectrum, you have parents who give no thought as to how their precious possessions will be divvied up after their deaths. On the other, you have parents who embrace the process. These parents discuss with their children who should expect what after they're no longer in the land of the living.


Which is better when it comes to managing sibling rivalry? Pretty inarguably the latter. It might seem easier (and less macabre) to just let children divide things up post-passing. But in the wake of a parent's death, even the most loving siblings can wind up at each other's throats.

So what do you do? Let's start with the will.


Get the Will to Work for You

family heirlooms
It just sits there, all innocent. Like it's not the reason Aunt Jane and Uncle Alex hate each other now.

There are a couple of ways splitting up heirlooms can go down. Parents can simply ponder who will get what and write those wishes directly into a will, or they can make the issue a family matter and bring all of their children into the decision. The former dominates in terms of making everything tidy and official, while the latter scores points for making sure everyone is happy with the outcome and less likely to sue the pants off each other later. Your best bet might be a combination of the two.

If you're specifying heirlooms in your will, you'll need to think about three things: who wants what, who deserves what, and how the siblings will react to who did, in fact, get what. For example, while parents may want their firstborn son to inherit their expansive antique dining room set, he might be perfectly happy with the cheap IKEA table and chairs he currently has squeezed into the kitchenette of his apartment. Or perhaps their daughter hopes to inherit her great-grandmother's engagement and wedding rings, but the parents know a daughter-in-law has also admired them for ages. (Here, the general rule of thumb is that if a daughter and daughter-in-law both highly favor an item, the appropriate choice is the daughter. It's all about the bloodline.)


Where it gets dicier is when two siblings can both call valid claim to an item. Perhaps daddy's little girl adored watching her father build the set of family bookshelves, but her brother was a bookworm who was partial to actually reading the books on the shelves. So who gets it?

It's a tough call to make without insight, which is why parents should evaluate their entire stock of heirlooms and consider -- and discuss with their children -- which possessions mean the most to each and who'll be devastated if they miss out on something. Perhaps the daughter did enjoy watching her father build the bookshelves, but she's even more attached to the extensive set of curio pieces he carved when she was a bit older. Boom, problem solved. That's why it can pay to talk it over ahead of time.


Throw a Pre-passing Party

If listing out line items in your will isn't your thing, another option is to let siblings work it out themselves in advance. Yard sale stickers are one popular tool (think of those little round colored dots). Siblings can write their names and stick them on the back or bottom of the heirlooms they want.

The scrawl-and-stick ritual can become part of your family get-togethers, and it shouldn't be a one-time thing. People's tastes and wishes change. Say a grandchild is hugely enamored with a china set while she's a young girl, but as she ages it's her grandmother's sleek silver watch that she really adores. When the family goes back through their tags, she can take her marker off the one and add it to the other, paving the way for her aunt to stake a more solid claim on the china set she's been fond of since she was a child.


Tagging parties also give families a chance to relate all the interesting and loving memories tied to each heirloom, so everyone really understands the fantastic histories of each possession. Plus, the person preparing to pass on the items is secure in the knowledge that each heirloom will be treasured for years to come.

But maybe best of all, taking openly about who wants what gives people the chance to really weigh how much they want something against how their loved ones feel. If a daughter has known for years that her brother will be devastated if he doesn't receive their father's bedside lamp, then she won't be surprised when he wants to take it home. Otherwise, blindsided by her brother's claim, grief could convince her she desperately needs the lamp to remember her father by. By the time she realizes she doesn't really even like the lamp, she and her brother may have some foreboding fences to mend.


After the Fact, Put it Off

If a family doesn't make a plan for heirlooms in advance, one of the worst things the surviving members can do is try to figure out all those details right away. Emotions are running high, and even the closest siblings in the world can end up saying hurtful things and opening up familial chasms that can then take years to heal.

The going rule of thumb is to wait at least six months before dealing with a parent's possessions. Put everything in storage for the duration if you have to. When everyone can handle the process without severe mental turmoil, visit the facility together and start maturely discussing who would like what. Start a tally to help balance things out, weighing desire for each item on a sliding scale. With everyone in a rational and respectful frame of mind, peaceful civility can reign while bitter feuding can be kept to a minimum.


Your immediate family members may not be the only people who need to be involved in the process. Even if your children are the only ones with a real say, there may be other people who should -- or at least think they should -- be involved.

Think of the aunt who spent tons of time and energy devoted to caring for her aging sister during the prolonged final illness, or the uncle who was like a second father after his favorite brother had a heart attack early in life. Do these people need to be completely excluded from the process? Of course not. Maybe ask if there are a couple of heirlooms that would mean the world to them, or allow them one or two picks after the main items are settled. But to deem them unworthy of anything seems pretty harsh. If they're old enough, grandchildren may even like to go through trinkets or costume jewelry to find mementos of their grandparents.

Once you reach a consensus among the loving and kind members of the family -- you know, the ones who know how to reasonably listen to and empathize with one another -- how do you deal with black sheep and the like? We'll get into that on the next page.


Deal with Drama

family heirlooms
Vintage photos can start some pretty serious arguments if everyone wants to get their hands on them.

There's often a rogue in the family, someone who seems to love saving banner moments for wildly inappropriate times -- like the passing of a parent! When matters start to get nasty, you or your children may need to call in an arbiter, therapist and, in some cases, legal aid. It's a difficult situation, but don't despair: Very frequently, once a third party is involved, issues can be settled eventually, even if some (hopefully temporary) family fallouts are the result. It's better to call for help than to let things fester indefinitely.

When it comes to things like photographs, wedding rings and other highly sentimental heirlooms, the complications can get even more severe. This is another reason why it can be an excellent idea to talk to things over beforehand, so everybody knows what to expect and is at least somewhat prepared for the outcome, even if they aren't overly fond of it. Different families will deal with conflict in different ways, so just try to be firm yet flexible, depending on your level of interest in each item.


If you really can't settle the issue, then donation can be an option. In particular, a museum could be interested in items with historic value. It might be worth sending out feelers to see if there are any establishments willing to accept them. That solves the problem of who "wins" while at the same time allowing others to appreciate the great heirlooms left behind. If no one expresses interest, consider donating the items to people in need -- the important issue is that someone will be appreciating your heirlooms the way your family did for all those years.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Family Heirlooms Causing a Family Feud: 3 Ground Rules for Dividing Up a Loved One`s Estate." Voyages Press, Inc. Express Press Release. March 22, 2006. (7/20/2010)http://express-press-release.net/23/Family%20Heirlooms%20Causing%20a%20Family%20Feud%203%20Ground%20Rules%20for%20%20Dividing%20Up%20a%20Loved%20One%60s%20Estate.php
  • Garland, Susan. "Heirlooms, Yes, but Without the Looming Heirs." New York Times. Oct. 24, 2004. (7/20/2010) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05E2DF1F3AF937A15753C1A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2
  • Jio, Sarah. "Inheritance battles - how to avoid them." CNN Living. (7/20/2010)http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/personal/06/23/lw.fighting.inheritance/index.html
  • Picklesimer, Phyllis. "The essential ingredients of supportive sibling relationships." University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. July 19, 2010. (7/20/2010)http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-07/uoic-tei071910.php#
  • Seldin, Naomi. "Divide family heirlooms without a fight." Times Union. July 6, 2009. (7/20/2010)http://blog.timesunion.com/simplerliving/divide-family-heirlooms-without-a-fight/12221/
  • Wadler, Joyce. "Mother, It's Too Elegant! And Other Lies to Protect Your Home From Unwanted Family Heirlooms." The New York Times. June 26, 2008. (7/20/2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/26/garden/26ibox.html?_r=1&ref=garden
  • "Who Gets What? Dividing Possessions Before Death." Elder Law Answer. Feb. 22, 2010. (7/20/2010) http://www.elderlawanswers.com/Resources/Article.asp?ID=3799