Many families have traditions involving particular objects. When there are several siblings in line to inherit items, disagreements can occur. Learn ways to gift family heirlooms without controversy so that when you’re gone, what’s left are fond memories—not hurt feelings.
While you’re still healthy and active, call a family meeting. Host it in person if everyone lives close by, or arrange a virtual meeting (we’ve all adjusted to those!) at a time that’s convenient for all your adult children.
Tell your children that you want to have an honest discussion about what to do with family heirlooms. Ask them to be honest about pieces they are particularly fond of and which don’t matter to them.
Adult children may initially resist such a conversation, thinking that it would upset you or because it upsets them to have to think about what happens after you die. But talking about how you’ll distribute family heirlooms long before you depart will ease the work of managing your estate once you’re gone.
Tell the Stories
If there are items that are strongly associated with family tradition, make sure all your children are aware of the origins of pieces of jewelry, dish sets, or silver. Interest in family history is remarkably high among younger generations.
Don’t cheat your heirs out of knowing about your family history because there are a few skeletons in the closet. Tell them how you came to possess a special vase or a crystal bowl so that they can appreciate the legacy you’ll leave one of them.
If there’s a particular piece of jewelry that your grandmother loved, explain why she treasured it. If you’re passing on your father’s antique watch, add instructions on how to wear it and keep it in working condition. When the time comes, your heirs can pass this information on to the next generation.
Provide Assurances of Fairness
Before you make plans for a final distribution of family heirlooms, get the items you plan to bequeath appraised. Some items may be more valuable than you realize. If there is a standout item that is significantly more valuable than others, or if one child will receive more things because of family tradition, assure your children that you’ll be fair.
If you don’t have things that are comparable in value to give, provide a monetary gift in an amount equivalent to the value of the heirloom another child will receive.
Give While You Live
Gifting heirlooms during your life gives you and your kids time to appreciate family history and enjoy the items together. One of the best ways to gift family heirlooms without controversy is to bestow a special treasure to each of your children on their birthday. Make sure each of them knows their meaningful item is ready for them to receive when their day rolls around.
Unless you’re extremely wealthy or your family heirlooms are very valuable, you probably won’t have to worry about gift taxes. If possible, you should still check with your attorney before gifting a family heirloom to make sure you aren’t running afoul of IRS limits on gifting.