5 Steps to Protect Family Heirlooms

5 Steps to Protect Family Heirlooms

by Heleigh Bostwick, September 2010

You've probably heard at least one horror story about adult children fighting over how to divide up possessions or whether to keep or sell those precious family heirlooms after their parents have died. In most cases, however, it's not monetary value that fuels these family feuds, but the sentimental value of such things as photographs, personal effects, or jewelry and artwork. With that in mind, here's what you can do to prevent family disputes regarding those precious family heirlooms handed down through the generations. 

1. Make sure you have a will

Writing a will is just one part of the estate planning process, albeit an important one.  A will spells out who gets what property and assets—stating, for example, that possessions are to be divided equally among the children. A will can be as specific or as general as you'd like, but unless you make a point to include detail about specific items, the wording can be fairly general and often may not specify exactly who gets what.

2. Clearly state in person how possessions are to be divided up

Simply having Mom or Dad casually tell Jane that Grandma's lamp will be hers one day usually doesn't work. Too often, after Mom or Dad's passing, children find out that the lamp was promised to Sally too, thus sparking a heated dispute among siblings. That is one reason why most estate planning experts recommend gathering the entire family together while everyone is still alive and healthy, and creating an inventory list of “special possessions,” with the heir's name written next to it. This list can then become part of the estate planning documents—either the will or a revocable living trust.

An alternate method is to label each object or possession with the child's name, using a sticker. Family members should bear in mind, however, that this method is not legally binding. That being said, this method of dividing up possessions is usually fairly effective for most siblings.

3. Appoint a trustee or executor for the estate

A trustee or executor manages and oversees the assets of the estate. The job of executor is to settle the estate and communicate to heirs what is happening with the estate. It's fairly straightforward unless, of course, there are disputes. Typically the oldest child is chosen for this “job,” but an executor can be any trusted person who is a good mediator.

4. Add a “No-Contest Clause”

Some states allow you to insert a “No-Contest Clause” into your will or trust. This method is highly effective at discouraging family disputes because heirs who contest will not be entitled to any part of the inheritance.

5. Sell at Auction

Some families opt to sell family heirlooms and other possessions at either a public or online auction. In both cases, all of the family possessions are up for auction and children must bid on items they want to have. Alternately, family members can be given “credits,” using money they will inherit to purchase items so that they don't have to use their own money.


Inheritance Battles—how to avoid them. Sarah Jio, CNN.com, June 23, 2008.

Distribution of Tangible Personal Property Among Family Members. Gary L. Brown, Esq., brownlaw-ok.com.

Nine Ways to Avoid Estate Disputes. Paul A. Rabalais, Esq., yourestateplanningblog.com. May 8, 2009.

Dividing Personal Property Heirlooms after Death. Matt Gardner. Iowa-lawblog.com. May 26, 2008.