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Often the biggest disputes arise out of what seems to be the smallest of things – like who gets grandma’s yellow pie plate. A child may “know” that it was meant to be left to her or that it “means” more to her than to a sibling. The quarrel may not be about a particular item at all but, sometimes even unbeknownst to the participants, about old wounds and slights.

Ways to divide up family heirlooms

How do you keep your family from falling apart over grandma’s yellow pie plate or the mahjong set or the milk glass (real life examples)?

  1. One solution is to give it away while your hand is warm.
  2. Another is to appoint a non-family member, someone who will not play favorites, as your executor and let him or her decide and be roundly hated by all and sundry.
  3. Yet a third is to handwrite a Memorandum of Heirlooms and Personal Possessions, signed, witnessed and notarized just like your Will and attach it to your Will or your Letter to your Executor so it won’t get lost.

What about the things you don’t particularly care about, but your children or grandchildren might discover that they do? Is there any “fair” way to divide them up?

There are several.

  1. One way is to hold an “NLF draft.” Each person draws a number and chooses in numerical order, perhaps from the house, perhaps from the room with a new number draw for each room.
  2. Another is an auction using monopoly money.
  3. Or you could dispense with this altogether by directing your executor to hold an estate and/or garage sale and donate the rest to charity or take it to the dump. If someone really wants Grandma’s yellow pie plate, they can buy it at the sale.

Most of the time, no one wants our china or crystal or sterling silver: people entertain differently today. But they may just discover that they all want Grandma’s yellow pie plate – or that another relative doesn’t “deserve” it.

Don’t let the last memory they have of you be that you left it to the “wrong” person.


Elder law attorney, Terry Garrett, is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is active in the Texas and Austin Bar Associations. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.

She assists families of people with special needs, people planning for the retirement years and people administering estates.

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