Dividing family heirlooms (animosity edition)
May 26, 2016 4:40 PM   Subscribe

What is a fair way to divide family heirlooms with cousins? There was a long-term estrangement with these cousins, and we have tried to make the best of being stuck making decisions with them regarding the care of the person who owns the heirlooms (and is now in a nursing home with dementia and unable to make decisions), but it hasn't worked out really well. Now we are supposed to meet to split things up. Is there any way to make this more fair/easier? More inside.

I seem to remember reading something about an app that's supposed to help with this. I've also heard of mediation. Probably none of the heirlooms are worth more than a few hundred dollars but there are some framed family photos that lots of people are going to want and a number of things have a lot of sentimental value. There are also important family papers and letters. Some family members are far flung and don't really want any physical items. Is there a way to make this more fair to them? It seems reasonable for them to have more money when the estate is finally settled - but we don't know how much money will be left then. We are willing to be fair and capable of being civil, but the two sides have been fighting in court, so this is not going to be a warm family moment. The person who's legally "in charge" is on their side, but I think she will also try to be fair (though one of her brothers took a number of things he wanted without notifying anyone - he has since returned the most important, but our side had to involve a lawyer). We need to do this now rather than after the owner has died because the house needs to be emptied and sold. The current plan is for representatives of both families to meet at the house and divide things. I'd appreciate any thoughts or experiences.
posted by FencingGal to Human Relations (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It may be possible to have high quality reproductions of photos and letters so everyone can have their own copy. I have recently plunged into the rabbit hole that is online genealogy and am seeing pictures of my relatives from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s in other people's family trees. It is a bit strange to see the heirloom picture you recall hanging on your grandparent's wall online in some strangers' account :). I know this only helps with one part of the problem, but perhaps it will help. Good luck, and I'm sorry that you're in this situation.
posted by elmay at 4:52 PM on May 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

For the photos, papers, and letters, these are things that can easily be scanned and shared with everyone who wants a copy. That's what happened in our family.

Perhaps physical items could be distributed via a lottery system.

Nothing needs to be made more "fair" for people who don't want physical items that aren't really worth much more than their sentimental value. Let them put their name in the bucket for the lottery for that item, but don't try to compensate them monetarily for not getting physical items. If there was any one item that had such a great value that others would "lose out" by not having it awarded to them, let the person who does get it buy it from the estate at an appraised value and then the proceeds could be distributed amongst the remaining inheritors. But again, it doesn't sound like you have anything worth the trouble.

From personal experience, there are very few material things that are worth fighting over. Most of the physical things that I inherited years ago are gone now, either through not really fitting into my d├ęcor/lifestyle, or by being of just enough value that they got taken when my house was broken into. There was a minor fight over these things during the distribution which resulted in an estrangement in the family for several years, and then I lost the things anyway. Totally not worth it in the end. If someone wants something so bad that they'll fight for it, let them have it. It's better to remember being the bigger person than to look at the physical object and be reminded every time you see it of the bad feelings between you and so-and-so.
posted by vignettist at 4:53 PM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

With regard to photos, letters and papers, can you get copies made for everyone? I know for some people owning the original would be important, but for most people a good quality reproduction would still be very worth having.

The only family distribution I was involved in was a very friendly one. We were left with a few items at the end that a number of people really wanted so we had a raffle.
posted by Azara at 4:55 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pictures should be scanned and uploaded so that anyone who wants them can have access to them. Ditto papers.

Stuff is stuff. Money is money. Distribute them equally. If someone doesn't want stuff, they can just get their share of money.

No matter what someone will feel ripped off because they didn't get the Hummels.

I'll also say that most of the heirlooms don't have intrinsic value. Neither does the furniture. It might be better to have an estate sale and add that to her estate.

Luckily, this isn't really your headache. Go, if there's something you want, ask for it. But if you don't get it, it will be okay.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:56 PM on May 26, 2016

We had a way in my family, but it was post mortem, not ante. (I was co-executor with senior counsel and it was all just terrible but was grateful for our lawyer's hand holding.)

For items of monetary value, each person "paid" the estate the value of the item (the person wanting it found similar fold items in eBay/auction houses and used that as a guide) and that sum then went in to a communal "pot" that was then divided amongst beneficiaries. I found that in the locked photo bucket album there were few arguments. I also copied all beneficiaries in to all emails sent. I entered in to no discussion that wasn't completely open, other than with the lawyer to save costs. I also told them if the contacted the lawyer it would cost everyone so it was better to talk to me and if I couldn't answer questions would consult the lawyer with an omnibus of questions.

Photos and documents were copied professionally. I also created an online album documenting the house as it was when I arrived and asked people to comment on what they wanted, what they knew of the deceased' intentions for any object and if they knew any anecdotes about items. Like "see that toaster, it belongs to the lady next door, Fred borrowed it three years ago and didn't get around to returning it." Or "see that toupee in the fish tank there? It belonged to Great Aunt Bertha, I dont want it but I heard Fred tell the story once and he kept Great Aunt Bertha's photos and spectacles in a box in the shed."

This kept it civil, transparent and reasonably fair. I wish you luck. It's really hard. I still loathe the relative that put me in that position. Several family members still won't speak to me now because I was so hard line in my transparency and equality. But I can live with myself very comfortably.

One thing I did notice...people tend to conflate the stuff of a person with their relationship/love of a person. Be gentle with them. It's childhood memories, senses of self and a whole lot of complicated shit tied up in those objects.

Ten years later I'd donate my lot to a charity shop and take the cash rather than accept the burden of "stuff". I encourage you to KonMari it if you can. When it's your time to move or die, NOBODY will thank you for holding on to most of the items.

I wish you strength, grace and calm. This is haaaaard.
posted by taff at 4:59 PM on May 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

This is a terribly sticky situation. Who gets what is really a matter of perspective. Everyone feels they deserve something for one reason or another.

My father was once given very sentimental and valuable items before a family member died. He knew his health will not improve and told my father what items were for him. My father did all of the care giving and when the inevitable happened, my father was concerned with all of the funeral arrangements and didn't worry about the contents of the home. When everything settled, all of the items that were to go to my father was taken by someone else. It was not a happy time, to say the least. I think that my father was heart broken more than anything else. To lose someone so beloved and then to have none of the things that were given made my father very hurt. The trust that was once there is forever gone and my father will no longer feel the same about the person who took all of those items knowing they were meant for my father.

Somewhere along the way, you have to decide on what is actually important. Pictures, letters, documents can be scanned, recreated and distributed.

I keep telling myself when I die, all of the things I find precious and important will be garbage for someone else to dispose of.

A friend of mine just told me that his uncle passed away last week. He is the heir of the estate. He told me that all of the things that his uncle loved and coveted are now smashed and put into a garbage bag. There were things that are four generations old. That old man had a story for each item and now it is all just a pile of broken things headed for the dump.

Write down the items you each want, if it is photos, scan it and one person gets the original while everyone else gets a copy. Distribute the photos where each party gets one and everyone else gets a copy of them. Pick which are the ones you want and in what order you find to be the most desired. Let each party do the same and maybe in that list, you will find that you can all agree on what you want more than something else.

If you are going to simply divide things based upon monetary value, appraise the items. Take photos of the items. If it were to be distributed and it seems uneven due to monetary value, let the party who is willing to put money in get the item and distribute that money evenly amongst everyone else. Did that make sense?

In the end, things may not be worth a fight over. It is just things. It really doesn't make your life better or worse to have it or not have it.
posted by Yellow at 5:04 PM on May 26, 2016

Take turns choosing things for as many rounds as it takes to distribute everything that anyone wants. Lottery for who goes first. The money can be included in this too, in $100 increments or whatever makes the most sense. (I'd probably use several different increments for the money, so smaller amounts would go in later rounds.) Including the money include far-away stakeholders, and also may magically make other arguments disappear as some of the people fighting suddenly realize they want cash more.
posted by metasarah at 5:11 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just to add another nuance: Please don't make people take things. The word Hummel in this thread raised the specter of 10 years of displaying my husband's family's set, which we both loathed.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:19 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all thoughts. Just one note. The family photos I'm most concerned about are very large portraits that were framed in the early 20th century. Can something like that even be scanned? I'm talking more than 2 feet in height and width. I don't know if there are any other copies of them.
posted by FencingGal at 5:34 PM on May 26, 2016

For the extra large pieces, you take a photo and reprint (at manageable sizes). If you hunt around, you can probably find an archiving or artist-focused service that does this with proper lighting.
posted by itesser at 5:38 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Professional archivist photographer, yes. It costs. If they're behind glass, further complications. But yes, totally. Perhaps the person that gets the original pays whole/half the costs of the reproductions.
posted by taff at 5:39 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Take turns choosing things for as many rounds as it takes to distribute everything that anyone wants. Lottery for who goes first.

We did this as well for a friend who recently died. It seemed to work well, but it was exhausting and emotional even though everyone was fairly well behaved.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:29 PM on May 26, 2016

I would do a draft, but a snake draft. If there are say 10 people, you randomly select a draft order for those ten. 1 goes first through 10. In round 2, reverse the order so 10 goes first and 1 last. Repeat that every two rounds so that being 10 means also being 11. I think the idea of having monetary plugs in some increment like $100 as discussed above is a good one too. You could also let people trade places or buy a higher draft from another participant.
posted by AugustWest at 6:38 PM on May 26, 2016

Have your relatives write down what they want and why they want it before you all meet, and go over their requests. Say Jim and Bob both want the china, the wobbly chair, and the forks, and Jenny just wants the forks, because she remembers them from when she had the flu and grandma fed her beets off of them. Jenny would get the forks and Jim and Bob would get whichever piece that they had the best story for, and their stories would be shared so that they could possibly understand one another.

Try to have everything divided up before they meet in person so that no one pitches a fit. If Jim and Bob are both desperate for the china, then it will need to be split up and not taken as one set. If Jim and Bob both have daughters, the set could be divided evenly amongst the ladies.

There is no fair in this. People suck and it sounds like these people have a history of sucking more than what is considered normal. Set a rule that anything that is in highly disputed over goes to auction. Basically, if they can't agree who should have it then no one will.
posted by myselfasme at 6:50 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

> The current plan is for representatives of both families to meet at the house and divide things

Might be worth having some professional representation at the property when you meet. Small but valuable items can disappear into pockets without supervision.

Also, hugs. This experience may put a dent in your faith in humanity.
posted by scruss at 7:10 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Consider establishing ground rules for the stuff. For instance, is that a set of 2 end tables or 2 separate end tables? Do portraits of spouses go together? Desks and desk chairs? High quality silver because a complete set is needed to be useful?
posted by beaning at 7:12 PM on May 26, 2016

If you want to go the technical route (this might be more of a social problem without a technical solution though), you might want to try Spliddit.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:54 PM on May 26, 2016

I've also heard of mediation.

For your sanity, you might see if the different factions will agree to a neutral mediator. Spending a few thousand dollars to make the decisions someone outside the family's fault may be worth it. My uncles still hold grudges a decade later against my mother (who was totally selfless) for how she divided my grandmother's physical possessions.
posted by Candleman at 9:48 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agree that if there is anything that is likely to cause ongoing family rifts, then get a mediator in to help agree who gets what.

Better that than ongoing resentment. (I just wrote a whole anecdota story but deleted it because it's not relevant. The point is that when someone dies - or even before that, when you're having to go through stuff - there is so much emotion and so much history - and sometimes so much greed - and sometimes the best way to deal with that is to appoint an outsider to help work through who gets what)

Good luck.
posted by finding.perdita at 12:02 AM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mediation can be really useful, especially in situations like yours. My dad, a retired lawyer of many years, recently got certified to do mediation in his state. The last time he was certified was a couple decades ago. He says that the main thing he's taken away from it is that people remain the same no matter what year it is. Sometimes people can be so wrapped up in their feelings that a neutral third party bringing some organization and clarity can be downright shocking.

In our family there is some very complicated inheritance situations due to old trusts, complex genealogy, heirlooms worth actual money, and lots of other details. But when it comes to the things and not the money, it turns out that most of us have some very specific items that we care about, and everything else is irrelevant. If possible, gather this information of who has strong feelings about what ahead of time.

Plenty of people might be perfectly satisfied with digital reproductions of paper items, and if you can get a price quote for archival copies ahead of time you might be able to unanimously agree on dividing the cost of that service evenly among everyone, or perhaps from the house being sold.

Basically, a little kindness will go a long way. It seems like you already understand this but I know how grating it can be to feel like you're constantly taking the high road. The problem is that fairness is subjective. If there are squabbles over certain items, try your best not to let other items be pulled into the vortex. Establish the low-conflict stuff first (Ashley wants the ugly carved wooden crocodile, Ashley can have it) and work up to the more troublesome stuff at the end. That way you don't have people being like "well if you get all of the wine glasses, then I get the tablecloths AND the wooden crocodile!" Because then Ashley will cry. Instead the mediator can be like "nope we already established the the crocodile is dealt with and no longer relevant."

Oh, and definitely plan for something relaxing and rewarding afterwards, even if it turns into a bigger mess. Take care of yourself so you can take the high road as many times as you need to.
posted by Mizu at 12:20 AM on May 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding taff's system of extreme transparency, especially since tensions are already high.

I DO NOT RECOMMEND standing around the kitchen table, taking turns or doing a lottery to grab the next ring/cufflinks/tchotchke. Doing it this way in our family led to accusations, lawsuits, and then permanent estrangement between siblings.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:38 AM on May 27, 2016

Three ideas for items that are unique.

1. Use the NYT's shared apartment room allocator software, which works with up to eight people and rooms (objects) at a time. Use the estimated total value of those things as the total rent.

2. Give everyone $x in Monopoly money and auction the stuff off among the group. There may be apps for this.

3. Call in an estate sale person and auction it all. The relatives can bid against each other and the public. If that drives up prices, fine; everyone benefits when the proceeds/remaining estate value gets split down the road. This is how Mennonite families handle it.

All of these tactics force folks to assign their own relative values (based on sentimentality, worth or whatever) to the stuff and avoids people getting saddled with stuff they don't want.
posted by carmicha at 4:00 AM on May 27, 2016

If there are collectibles (such as Hummel figurines), look up what they're actually worth. A lot of collectibles are worth a lot less than you might think. If they've got sentimental value, that is, of course, different. But you wouldn't want to get in a huge fight over something that is basically worthless.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:00 AM on May 27, 2016

I think the best way to do this is to give everyone $100 in Monopoly money and let them bid on the items they want the most. If you really, really want that Waterford candy bowl, well, bid $100. If you'd like to have but can live without the silver candlesticks, bid whatever: $52.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:15 AM on May 27, 2016

Does the grandparent have a will? Have you seen it? It could be that, in the will, some things have been left for certain people. Divvying up possessions before the will might create awkward moments later.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:08 PM on May 27, 2016

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