Will your heirs really want your stuff?

Saddleback Leather makes some lovely products. As Alan Henry on the Lifehacker website pointed out, the company’s tag line is “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.”

Similarly, designer Jonathan Adler told Valeriya Safronova of The New York Times, “I make tons of stuff, but my life motto is, ‘If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.'”

But despite claims like this, many times the heirs do not want many of the items being left behind — even those of outstanding quality. Maybe that Jonathan Adler zebra bath mat just isn’t their style, or doesn’t fit the color scheme of their bathroom.

There are many reasons that an item that’s valued by one person might be of no interest to another:

  • Different tastes. Sometimes that’s generational — for example, certain furniture styles are out of fashion right now. But often it’s a matter of personal preferences.
  • Different lifestyles. Someone living in a small apartment isn’t likely to want large furniture pieces. Those who don’t entertain much at home may not want a 12-piece place setting. China or glasses that can’t go in the dishwasher may be of little interest to others. And depending on a person’s job, that person may have little need for a fantastic briefcase.
  • Homes that are already furnished. For example, those who already have a nice toaster are unlikely to want another one.

So what does this mean for seniors who are thinking about the future of their possessions — and those who eventually inherit those items?

To me, the most important thing to keep in mind was summarized by Tyler Whitmore, who was quoted in The Washington Post. “It’s not that they don’t love you. They don’t love your furniture.”

If something isn’t right for the inheritor, I believe getting it back into use by someone who will value it honors the prior owner more than letting the item sit hidden away in a closet. This exchange on Twitter captured that sentiment perfectly:

From Peter Nickeas: ebay is flooded with guys who inherit hand tools and have no idea what they do, no appreciation for craft.

Reply from Bill Savage: better the tools get sold to and used by people who do know and respect the craft. Otherwise? Clutter.

Another point worth considering is that sets of china, glassware and such don’t have to be treated in an all-or-nothing manner when it comes to giving them away.

Cynthia Broze wrote in reply to an article on Forbes:

My family had large Christmas gatherings every year at my grandparents house. My grandmother used her china, that she saved hard for, at these gatherings. When she died she left it to me and I kept it for 30 years … I emailed to all nieces, her great grandkids, cousins, etc., saying … Hey remember that china? I split it up between many who were happy to take a plate, cup or setting.

Another anecdote along the same lines: When my stepmother died, my father asked my brother and me what we would like to take from the many household furnishings. I took two cut glass wine goblets that aren’t my style (so I had no desire for the full set) but that bring back many happy memories.

And if items are going to be sold, it’s important to be realistic about their value — which is often much less than what the items originally cost and much less than what you might have expected. If seeing items get sold for low prices is difficult emotionally, you may find it easier and more emotionally rewarding to donate them.

Wayne Jordan, a licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser, wrote about what can happen when those who are downsizing aren’t realistic about their possessions:

More than once, I’ve heard from the children of Boomers about parents who put their treasures into storage because the kids didn’t want them and they “weren’t going to sell them for pennies.” Then, they paid storage fees until they passed away or until the contents of the storage unit mildewed. Ultimately, these items ended up in an auction or in a landfill anyway.

That’s not the type of uncluttering any of us wants to see happen.

9 Comments for “Will your heirs really want your stuff?”

  1. posted by Crystal on

    My mother is 74 and she is clearing out her stuff now, asking herself “will my kids want to inherit this?” as she goes. We’ve had conversations about this stuff as we go along – I loved the story about the punchbowl she used at my dad’s surprise 30th birthday party, but I don’t love the punchbowl …which has now gone to a charity thrift store where someone else will be thrilled to find it. It’s so much easier to do a little bit at a time!

  2. posted by infmom on

    My father-in-law was an excellent woodworker. One of the things I remember best from my inlaws’ house was a magnificent hutch that he built.

    But when he died and my mother-in-law went into assisted living, no one could take that hutch. Nobody had the space for it. And in our case not only did we not have the space but we would have had to find a way to ship it clear across the country.

    So when my mother-in-law had taken all the furniture she could manage to her new apartment, my husband’s siblings had a huge estate sale and fortunately someone who could appreciate the hutch and give it floor space took it home.

    I have already asked my kids to let me know which of my belongings they would like to have. I don’t think they have their sights set on anything in particular.

  3. posted by Dorothy on

    I have a friend who is hoarding a huge house full of stuff for her three middle-aged daughters DESPITE the fact they’re have told her THEY DO BOT WANT IT. So she’s shifting the burden of getting rid of this “valuable” stuff to them.

  4. posted by KR on

    At my wedding shower my mother presented me with a present from my long-dead grandmother – a beautiful teapot & serving set, with a letter to me penned by my grandmother. The teapot sits wrapped up in the basement 25 years later, never used. But I cried at my shower reading that letter and still think of the letter as the best part of the gift. I hang on to the teapot and a bunch of other family heirlooms, which I will promptly sell when my mother is gone and can no longer ask if I’ve kept these things. She doesn’t seem to understand that I personally don’t remember those I love through their stuff.

  5. posted by grace on

    Fortunately both times my parents moved from larger to smaller spaces (house to independent living to care facility) they did the majority of the decision making. I and siblings helped, but did not make very many decisions–we facilitated. I consider us very, very lucky. Mom and Dad were able to parcel out items they knew family members wanted. Mom also designated where donations of things were to go. We packed up our cars and delivered as she wished. Chaos could have ensued if either of my parents had died before making their own decisions.

  6. posted by SkiptheBS on

    I’m having everything burned when I die. My relatives are bigoted and greedy and my sister already has sold my possessions to an antiques dealer, totally not knowing that all she will inherit is a $20 bill.

  7. posted by laura ann on

    I am a minimalist, retired and recently cleaned out and gave some things to friend’s son and others as gifts. I have few decorative items, some metal art on the wall and plants, sold off antiques after inlaws died, as we were only heirs. I told my sister to sell or keep mothers things after passing, as I am across the country with not the same taste as her. I think the best thing if family doesn’t want the stuff after it is picked over is to sell it and downsize when older and go minimalist with plants and some artwork wall hangings or simple decor. Everything we have will go to group homes or sold with money going to the animal shelter and stocks will be transferred later to several worthy causes since we have other investments.

  8. posted by Christy on

    As I contemplate what to do with everything in my mom’s house after she unexpectedly passed very recently – and read this post about how the “things” are often more about memories and stories – it occurs to me that (a) the memories and stories have even another level that often isn’t spelled out – they get at underlying values and character traits; (b) what meaningful time could be spent with older family members just pointing at various objects and asking what memories they trigger. What a gift these “things” can serve as prompts for passing memories and stories and values down to a new generation that can adopt those values for themselves, or continue the memories by retelling the stories, or simply just know the older person better and have a “bigger” memory of them for having listened. Who knows what may be learned. And perhaps it would lessen difficulties of “letting go” to know the true essence we’re trying to preserve so often isn’t really about the “thing” itself. Would great grandmother really want someone to feel devastated and feel guilt the rest of a life if a tornado took down the house that held the china she had received on her wedding and entertained on for a lifetime? Who knows. But taking the opportunity to talk about owned things while everyone is still alive might open up possibilities for greater meaning and deeper relationships.

  9. posted by Tue Man on

    What a gift these “things” can serve as prompts for passing memories and stories and values down to a new generation that can adopt those values for themselves, or continue the memories by retelling the stories, or simply just know the older person better and have a “bigger” memory of them for having listened.

Comments are closed.