passing down family heirlooms

How to Pass Down Family Heirlooms

Your home, vehicles, and investments aren’t the only things you need to include in your estate plan. You should also name beneficiaries for your personal property. Treasured items like a hope chest or a grandfather clock tell the tales of your family’s history. 

But passing down family heirlooms can sometimes be a complicated process. Here’s how to go about it.

What Qualifies as a Family Heirloom?

Any type of non-titled personal property can be a family heirloom, no matter how valuable it is. (Titled items like your family cabin or your boat fall into a different legal category.) Whether it’s a recipe album or military medals, a diamond ring or crystal glassware, you can include any keepsake in your estate plan.

Here are some examples of common family heirlooms:

  • Jewelry
  • Furniture
  • Silverware
  • Firearms
  • Collectibles
  • Photographs
  • Fine Art
  • Military Uniforms 
  • Wedding Dresses

You might even have a few items of your own that you would like to pass down as family heirlooms. That enormous, solid-oak dining table that seats ten…or that painting you purchased on your honeymoon in Venice…how do you make sure they get handed down as well?

How to Pass Down a Family Heirloom

Step 1: Choose the Right Person

Your granddaughter might seem like the obvious choice for the person to inherit your grandmother’s china teapot collection. But what if she doesn’t want it? Or what if your best friend’s daughter has mentioned over and over how much she admires it? 

Choosing the right person is the first step in passing down a family heirloom. As important as it is to keep things in the family, it’s more important to give them to someone who will appreciate them and care for them. 

Step 2: Record the Story Behind It

Every family heirloom has a story. The person who inherits your great-grandfather’s silver pocket watch will want to know its history. When and where was it purchased? Who else has it been passed down to? Which family fables mention the pocket watch?

You can set down all the facts on paper, or make an audio or video recording if that’s easier. Include any documents or photos that detail its history in your family, and explain their significance. Word-of-mouth details often get lost, so document the story as faithfully as you can. 

Step 3: Include It in Your Estate Plan 

A good estate plan doesn’t just cover your real estate property and financial investments—it should include your family heirlooms as well. Keepsakes, heirlooms, and other non-titled personal property can still be included in your will or trust. 

The easiest way to do this is to create a personal property memorandum. This document lists who you are leaving your family heirlooms to, and why. It can accompany either your will or your trust, but you must date it and sign it with your full name.

How to Divide Family Heirlooms Fairly

Sometimes the first step is the hardest one. If they all want to inherit your mother’s pearl necklace, how do you keep your three daughters from fighting over who gets it? You could have a jeweler use the necklace to make them each a set of earrings, or you could leave it to your eldest granddaughter instead. 

But whatever you decide, it’s best to discuss it with your daughters in advance. Talk about what you’ve decided to do and why, and ask them to respect your wishes. And do your best to make sure they each receive an inheritance of equal emotional value. If you give the necklace to one of them, give each of the others another of your mother’s most treasured items. 

Adding Family Heirlooms to Your Estate Plan

You don’t have to make all these difficult decisions on your own. The advisors at Phelps LaClair can give you advice on any aspect of your estate plan, so you can rest assured that you made the right choices. 

Passing down family heirlooms is easier when you have an estate planning expert at your side. Our legal team can help you build an estate plan that protects your financial assets as well as your personal property.

Contact us today to schedule a free consultation


Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash used with permission under the Creative Commons license for commercial use 8/23/2023.

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