Our Team’s Favorite Family Heirlooms–and Some Tips for Preserving Yours!

“I shared pretzels with Paul Newman,” my mother brags as she looks at his photo. 

It’s a black-and-white print of one snapped by a family friend and photographer on the front straight at Road America, our favorite racetrack. Actor and racecar driver Newman is wearing his white racing suit, pensively gazing down the track, his fingers plugging his ears against the sound of engines. The photo–and countless other pieces of vintage racing art and memorabilia–are hung proudly around my dad’s office. In my kitchen, there’s a chipped cookie jar in the shape of a brown cow: not worth much, but it instantly brings back memories of my cousins and I sprinting from the car to Grandma’s cookie jar to see what she’d baked that day.

Christy has similar nostalgia for ornately-framed cross-stitch pieces, “one that has been in my parents’ home for as long as I can remember is of Santa Claus. Each year, we pull it out of storage and hang it for the holidays. It’s really a beautiful work of art and a cherished reminder of my grandma,” she says. 

“My grandma and I bonded over our love of stylish coats. Grandma would tell me stories of her outfits when she was younger, dressing up to go into the city,” Christy adds. “Shortly after she passed away, my grandpa gifted me one of her favorite fancy long coats, a lovely blue one from the ‘50s that I had altered to fit me. I think of her every time I open my closet and wear it.”

Katelyn chimes in with stories of her own. A fire in her childhood home, “really taught us what was important. We lost a lot of the ‘stuff’ that other families tend to have,” she says. There is an agate, found by her mom and great-grandpa at the family cabin on Lake Superior, that sits in a place of honor. There’s a baseball uniform of her grandpa’s. And even though there are fewer of them than other families might have, there’s still a select handful of meaningful objects found around her home. 

No matter their culture, location, or financial situation, every family has heirlooms of some kind. As part of our signature legacy planning program, we encourage clients to think about the pieces of artwork, jewelry, cars, tools, or other items they own that have stories and that they might want to make specific provisions for in their legacy plan. Here are a few ideas–inspired by some of our clients–for documenting and gifting those heirlooms:

Create a memo outlining your wishes–and mention it in your will.

Creating a will is almost always an essential part of creating a comprehensive legacy plan–but it involves time and legal fees to create or change one. And your specific belongings will change as you age. Unless you have belongings that are particularly valuable–your dad’s impeccably-restored car or a Steinway grand piano–there’s no need for them to be itemized in your will. Just add a sentence like this: “the contents of my home should be divided according to the memo I leave.” Then, in the memo (just a separate document with your plan), note for your trustee/personal representative how they should decide who gets what. Are there some specific items that you’d like to go to specific heirs? Should they start with your oldest heir, let them choose an item, and go in a circle until everything’s gone? It’s up to you.

Got a lot to document? Start a binder!

We had one client couple create an entire booklet of heirloom photos and stories for their children. As they came across important items in their home, they wrote out the stories behind them: where they came from, why they’re important, and how the family has interacted with them throughout the years. They’re using the booklet to have conversations with their children about any items they might want someday, and to store notes about their intentions. 

Think about caring for–or donating–key items or collections. 

Do you have your grandfather’s Civil War uniform? Maybe there’s a museum you could donate it to during life? If you have an expansive collection of antique Barbies or model trains or something your kids might not know much about, it may not be a bad idea to make sure they have someone to contact to help handle the collection when you’re gone. Is there a museum, guild, or collectors’ group who might be able to help? Document that for your heirs, or your executor or personal representative.

Some items might need to be liquidated.

There’s likely more in your home than your heirs can use. One of our elder law friends encourages her clients to think about “editing” their estates….actively going through closets and boxes to make things easier for those who will need to take care of things when they’re gone. Your heirs may need to have an estate sale for you–and split the proceeds–or hire someone to appraise and liquidate certain items. Just make a note in your will or memo about who should shepherd this process. 

Don’t forget about your digital assets.

We’re writing a whole blog post on this topic soon–so stay tuned. But just don’t forget about your digital footprint: your photos, videos, files, manuscripts, non-fungible tokens (NFTs)…whatever they are! Is there someone who knows your passwords and can gain access to distribute (or even destroy) these items?

Be sure to communicate your plan.

Whether you’ve got a $5,000 or $50M estate, some family watercolors or an original Monet, the important thing is that there’s a plan in place for when something happens to you–and that your loved ones know it exists. Don’t go it alone. We have a consulting package for every budget and stage of life, and we even put together a handy checklist for determining who to tell about your plan–and what details to share.

Capture the softer side of your legacy!

Your legacy is about so much more than the financial provision and items you leave behind. We encourage families to write “legacy letters” to their loved ones or capture their stories and personalities through creative video storytelling. Some have even written a whole series of letters to their heirs, to be opened along with annual disbursements from a Charitable Remainder Trust. No matter how you capture your heart for your heirs, just make sure you do it in some way! Make it personal. 


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