Dividing up possessions of an ailing relative
February 4, 2023 11:26 AM   Subscribe

My mother has invited her children to her home to divide up her possessions before she passes away. I think she'll be around for 5-10 years, depending on the outcome of an upcoming surgery and her genetics. Any tips for doing this in a way that does not damage relationships?

She also has a reverse mortgage but keeps falling down and should probably get balance therapy or go into a home. It feels kind of overwhelming.
posted by mecran01 to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Virtual hugs from an internet stranger on this overwhelming time!

Random suggestion based on my experiences as a facilitator of lots of small-scale decisionmaking - how about a version of dot voting (or some variety of weighted voting process)? Each person gets the same number of dots (20? 30? depends on whether you want to do multiple rounds across different categories?) and can allocate them however they want across the possessions. If someone really wants your mother's heirloom desk, they can put all their dots on that, whoever puts the highest number of dots on an item is the one who takes it home. Obviously this doesn't work well for homes and other properties....
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:35 AM on February 4 [8 favorites]

Space it out over several years. None of you really needs the stuff right now. Just take a few items each time you visit. Mother's home will look pretty sad if all the good stuff is gone.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:38 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]

I'd suggest taking turns. Everyone gets to pick one item per round. Other than the first round, if you really wanted grandpa's heirloom butter knives but your sibling snagged them, you already had a chance to pick and you prioritized something else. Expect the process to feel weird.

We also had an areas for things that "someone should keep" that no one was particularly attached to, and we sorted through that at the end. Also for "family items that should be given to the various cousins if none of the siblings wanted them".
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 11:39 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]

Sounds stressful. I get her wanting to do this now, if she's going to be moving to a facility where she can't take the stuff. Otherwise there's no harm in waiting (we did the sorting out after my mother died).

Maybe I'd go to her house with your siblings, take pictures of everything in the house that's up for grabs, and AFTER the visit discuss all this with your siblings, when sticky issues such as the monetary values of items may come up even though you think it won't. (Things Happen with siblings concerning parents' stuff, believe me.)

I don't know, it seems traumatic to me to be hanging around her house with her, talking about who gets what after she's passed away (or is it closer to now? (if she's moving)). I can also see that it's a way for her to feel that she is retaining some control over her life, when the rest of that control is being taken away from her. She's seeing who's getting what, picturing her stuff "living" on in your and your sibling(s)' homes -- a way of feeling a teensy bit immortal.

But yeah, my point is that you can go in with a technical plan, but be left with Feelings about it that you might not be happy with but it would be too late to do anything about that.
posted by DMelanogaster at 11:53 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know this isn’t what you asked specifically, but generally after a surgery Medicare will pay for some number of visits from VNS or similar; maybe as part of that process you could emphasize the falling and the need for some PT/OT to help prevent that from recurring (even if it involves a walker). A bad fall with a prolonged recovery could really shorten tbat 5-10 years.

As to your actual question, I’m an only child so I’ll bow out :)
posted by staggernation at 12:08 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

The way it worked in my family was post it notes. at some point after my grandpa’s second heart surgery he told everyone that if they wanted something in the house they should write their name on a post-it note and stick it under/behind that thing. If the thing already had a name on it, you put yours on top of that note, so it’s stacked. The very valuable things were discussed, stuff like family silver and artist originals and some other heirlooms, but the vast majority were sort of a slow burn free for all.

What ended up happening was that once Grandpa died and Grandma needed to massively downsize, anything that she didn’t need for her new apartment that had a post-it went to the first person who had put their name on it. If that person no longer wanted the item (tastes changed, whatever) it would go to the next person who’d put their name on it. One lamp had five post-its under the base! Sometimes there was an argument but it was limited to the single item and just the people who had put their names down, and most of the time it was like the first person wanted the thing but didn’t feel too strongly, but the other person was really intense about it so once the feelings were unearthed it was easy to relinquish or stay stubborn.

Then, before Grandma died much later, the process repeated. Some of the things had names on them from way back before Grandpa died; most of those folks were no longer interested in the item. Every time someone visited her, Grandma would send them away with some tchotke or another, and especially each time she moved to a different living situation she would encourage everyone helping her move to put names on things. In the end the only stuff that was argued over were the many photo albums, and I was called in as family decision maker about that. I decided to chuck all the photos that didn’t have our family in them, and my uncle agreed to get the remaining pile digitized. The rest of the items had obvious recipients - the nurses who cared for her in her final months got first dibs on anything that didn’t have a name on it, I got a stack of vintage fiber art books and patterns, my cousin who was shaped most like her got any clothes she liked and donated the rest, my uncle who travels a ton got some awesome fancy luggage, and so on. It was kind of clear who would get what if we thought about our lifestyle and interests, and everything else had already been claimed or donated.

For our family this kind of long form dibs system worked really well. Our grandparents were fancy and had a lot of unique, nice, and special things (a world instrument collection, multiple sets of porcelain, carved furniture, lots of art) so it boiled down to more of a matter of taste and aesthetic than sentiment, since it was all kind of equally sentimental, and if someone felt strongly so far in the past as to claim something years before Grandpa died and continued to feel that way so much later, they deserved and would care for the thing. Your mileage will definitely vary, all families are different.
posted by Mizu at 12:19 PM on February 4 [13 favorites]

Falling: check the meds and see if any of them have side effects like dizziness or don't play well with others. I have a family member who fell (with disastrous consequences). While in the hospital a pharmacologist reviewed her meds. Her balance problems weren't due to aging but due to a bad medication interaction. It would have been great if we had identified that two weeks earlier.
posted by rednikki at 1:20 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Be prepared for your mother to find this more emotionally difficult than she's anticipating. Especially if there ends up being some tension, this could easily turn into a situation where she feels like you care more about her stuff than about her. Also, as an old person in a situation where I'm contemplating my own mortality quite a bit, I'd wonder if her fears over the surgery, which she might not be sharing with you, depending on her personality, could have her feeling that she has to take care of this now whether she really feels ready or not.

This sounds very overwhelming. What I learned from an elderly aunt's declining health and death is that sometimes our elders make decisions (such as staying in a potentially dangerous living situation) that seem batshit crazy to us, but as long as they're mentally competent, all we can really do is be as supportive as possible, hope for the best, and deal with the worst if it happens.
posted by FencingGal at 1:32 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

We did this with my grandparents when they were preparing to downsize from large house to retirement community cottage.
The actual process of walking through the house and picking dibs was fairly smooth. We all got sheets of round label stickers in various sizes, one color per person, plus a notepad for each of us to take notes on things. The different sizes were how much you wanted something, so you had a few "I WANT THIS" stickers and lots of "This would be nice to have" stickers. We mostly went room by room and could discuss the stories behind things, talk about our memories of them (my dad's memories of lying on the floor watching a particular little wooden sculpture in the sun, my grandfather's memory of where he bought it on a trip, etc). This was really a valuable experience for us as the grandkids, because it helped us build up some family lore in a family that's quite spread apart.
The parts of the process that created tension later were twofold. The recordkeeping of who was what color, how to break ties, and who had written things down on their own lists did suffer some degradation in the years that came between the walkthrough, them selling the house and packing up, moving some things to the retirement home and putting some things in storage and shipping some things immediately, which led to a few things that my mom and aunt REALLY wanted going to the "wrong" person, plus a few things going to grandkids who no longer remembered or cared about an object they had received.
The storage and transportation of items to family spread up and down the West Coast left a lot of pressure on my aunt to organize logistics, which made her quite stressed and a bit resentful in combination with some of the tension over who certain items were meant to go to. Deciding how to split storage and shipping costs was another bone of contention that needed to be at least discussed and researched much farther in advance.
There were a lot of things that people felt emotionally obliged to call dibs on in the moment, but then the reality of needing a place to put it or the cost to transport it later left some people regretting decisions. The ability to photograph and share digital images with tags might help keep this updated.
posted by wakannai at 2:45 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

This can be hard because items can vary a lot in their sentimental vs. monetary value, and that is often where the conflicts arise. When one person is perceived to get "the most" in one category, the process can go off the rails. I agree with the sticker method mentioned by wakannai, to establish which items have multiple claims and which are the most important to each individual. Sometimes there is very little overlap, and other times everyone will converge on the love of a particular keepsake or artefact.

When we did this process with my grandparents' house while my grandmother was still alive but moving to a nursing home, we started by letting all the children and grandchildren lay claim to 2-3 favorite things, and there was some negotiation to ensure that everyone got at least one thing in this group. Once those items were claimed, we set a (crude) monetary value on things, and everyone was able to again select a range of items up to a certain amount. That helped to address the "fairness" aspect, as one person might select a teapot, and another a large antique cabinet. The teapot person would be able to add a few more things to their hoard to balance out the cabinet person. After that round, everyone could buy any number of remaining item from the estate, with the proceeds split among all the family members.

If I recall, there was some disagreement over a few big ticket items, but all was resolved amicably. Several family members dropped out after the first round, as they weren't interested in anything more than a couple of sentimental items. I think it was a little confronting for my grandmother about some of the things that *weren't* claimed or that went to a different family member than she had in mind for the item.
posted by amusebuche at 3:24 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Lots of advice here for how to deal with things between people receiving the items.

There's also your mother's feelings to consider. Maybe she would like to talk about what some of the items mean to her, either in person to whoever is getting it or maybe she would like to make a video where she talks about a number of meaningful objects. Sometimes people appreciate photos of the items that they are letting go.

Also, if your mother eventually ends up in some sort of memory care, sometimes it is helpful to have familiar items from the person's past on display. Some places even have display cases built into the wall for residents to identify their rooms easily without having to remember a room number.
posted by yohko at 5:19 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]

This sounds really tough. My instinct is that this could wait but I am sure you want to honor your mother's wishes. There is lots of good advice here on potential processes.

I just want to add that your family may want to keep in mind that feelings about these items may very well change down the road. Someone might claim an item now, but have less sentiment about it once your mother is gone. ( For decades, both of my Uncles said they wanted my Grandma's beloved piano but in the end, neither took it and it was given to estate sale. )
Conversely, something that folks don't care about now could become very important when a loved one is gone. (I witnessed my cousins in conflict over who could keep their father's trench coat. He had many more valuable items and I am sure none of them would have claimed the coat before he passed. It was all emotion.)
Just a thought that whatever you all choose to do now, there will likely need to be room for compromise and flexibility. Best of luck.
posted by fies at 6:38 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Be sure to consider shipping costs for those siblings not in the area. My folks had a beautiful antique carved headboard that all four of us wanted, but few wanted to pay the packing and shipping to our home.
The ruby ring was a different story! (Went to the sibling with a granddaughter).
posted by artdrectr at 9:03 PM on February 4

I wouldn't do this at all. I had a relative who did this and one of her children had already put her name on every valuable item. It threw the other kids for a loop.
posted by tiny frying pan at 7:05 AM on February 5

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's contributions. We agreed to clean up and sort the piles of stuff in the basement, put it in labeled bins, and then do a sort of "white elephant gift" rotation based on a random starting order. Everything went much more smoothly than I had anticipated, in part because we are all tired adults, and also because nobody wants to take responsibility for anything. I think my mom will be around for 5-10 years, so it's not a huge issue.

We are looking into balance therapy and the cost of a care facility, and I'm learning all about Medicaid.
posted by mecran01 at 12:39 PM on February 6

Response by poster: I should also clarify that there's very little worth taking other than for sentimental reasons. We already divided up the photo albums. Some granddaughters would like to look at the jewelry, none of which is especially valuable. There's a photo of my brother and I feeding a pet robin when we were young children. My mom hung it by her chair in the front room, and it quickly faded, because it was a copy and not the original. Nothing was nice to begin with and it is all slowly crumbling. My mom thinks someone is going to want that couch--nobody is going to want that couch, or those plastic flowers. I'm sorry mom.
posted by mecran01 at 12:50 PM on February 6

« Older Seeking remote voice lessons - concerned about...   |   Middle-aged lady seeks semi-public writing outlet Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments