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The Etiquette of Heirlooms: Part I



When you think of the word ‘heirloom’, you likely recall a physical item that has been passed down in your family thru generations. Heirlooms may be real property (that heirloom estate), small or large possessions (that heirloom quilt collection) or even plants (Nona’s famous heirloom tomatoes).  While the word ‘heirloom’ itself establishes familial meaning…there are now other ways we choose to honor and cherish our elders that ARE NOT rooted in heirloom tradition. As housing costs drive smaller living spaces, technology drives new and evolving desires and the definition of ‘valuables’ is changing – the etiquette of heirlooms is changing too!


This week we kick-off a 3-part series all about…heirlooms! In Part I, we will talk about the role that people, priorities and possessions play in an estate. In Part II, we will tackle the ultimate challenge: parting with prized possessions. In Part III, we will reveal what to do with what’s left.


Part I: People vs. Priorities s. Possessions


There are three big “P’s” when it comes to the great question of heirloom etiquette.


People: An estate plan should clearly outline who gets what – in no uncertain terms. Because this can be a large burden on the executor of the estate, and because many people prefer to see their loved ones enjoy the items now – there is a growing trend of people gifting their prized possessions when it comes time to downsize or simply declutter.



Getting honest feedback on who wants, and will take care of, your heirlooms may result in a more suitable home than making assumptions or choosing only your immediate family members. AARP recommends one-on-one conversations first, followed by group dialogue. Age-old traditions of passing down pieces based on age and birth order are considered unfair nowadays; when multiple people desire the same item – AARP now recommends a draw of numbers that dictate who chooses first.


Priorities: When designating the recipients of any highly valued items and furniture pieces, think about if your priority is that the items to go to a well-loved home, or if your priority is to pass on their value via a sale or auction. Then process will be much different if you want that antique vase to go to a new home among your loved ones than if you want it to be sold to the highest bidder so the monetary value can be placed back in your estate.


Possessions: In addition to making sure no one gets left out, and that distribution is equitable – the hardest part is knowing that the gifts you wish to give will be well-received. Modern generations may view antique furniture as ‘outdated’; collectibles may bear the concern of taking up too much space; tastes and times are changing – rapidly! If you browse through architectural magazines and blogs, minimalist is in – and cluttered is out. In an era where less is more, elders may feel very hurt if they view a rejection of their belongings as a sign of overall disrespect.


In conversations about ‘things’, it’s important to address the concept that shared memories and experiences are a part of a loved one’s legacy that will live on – regardless of physical space and monetary value. Creating a clear understanding that being unable to care for a store a prized item is not a rejection of love, a sign of disrespect or a lack of appreciation. It’s merely a matter of taste.


Check back next week for the ‘Etiquette of Heirlooms Part II: Parting w/Prized Possessions.


All our best,


Helen & Julie
















Helen Ingwersen