How Should Heirlooms Be Handled in Estate Plans?

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Heirlooms can trigger conflict among families.

While many people value money as an inheritance, family heirlooms are often considered priceless.

It makes sense.

People can get money anywhere, but there is no replicating the history and meaning attached to family heirlooms.

According to a recent The Wall Street Journal article titled “Pass On Your Heirlooms, Not Family Drama, this reality means detailed estate planning work must be done to address heirloom distribution to avoid family feuds and additional stress for your executor.

Heirlooms can trigger family feuds.
Clarity is key when bequeathing heirlooms.

When selecting an executor, you should choose someone who is organized and capable of handling the stress of the job.

Additionally, it is helpful to be specific in the amount of authority the person will have to make judgment calls regarding the asset distribution.

For example, a police officer from Illinois was tasked with settling the estate of his father.

The process was ongoing two years later because of the amount and type of property the father owned.

At his death, the father had a water-well drilling rig, more than a dozen vehicles, and two semitrailers filled with car parts and guns dating back to the Civil War era.

The father listed 19 heirs: blood relatives, step-children, and friends.

When giving his son the role of executor, he communicated that he knew the son could handle both the stress of the responsibilities and the likely emotional upset of various individuals.

While the father may have believed this to be sufficient estate planning, it likely drained his executor of time and energy.

Is there a better way to transfer heirlooms?


Being specific typically reduces the opportunity for family feuds and drawn-out estate battles.

Are sticky notes or verbal promises sufficient?


Spoiler alert: sticky notes can be easily removed or “lost.”

Additionally, verbal promises are not legally binding and can be contested by others.

It becomes a “your word against mine” scenario.


Without specific directions, families have even entered high-stakes card games to decide on the fate of certain heirlooms.

In another creative solution, sisters who wanted the same ring had two rings made by combining new materials and original materials from the ring.

These solutions are insufficient for most families when it comes to heirlooms.

The best way is to appraise heirlooms and divide them equitably among your heirs.

Those who do not want personal property can sell the item to a third party or a loved one who wants to keep it.

The property can also be donated, and the appraisal can be used as a tax deduction.

Although professional appraisals may seem unnecessary, they are important for estate and capital gains taxes.

By listing the item and the appraisal value in a memo, you can include this in your last will or your trust to give specific instructions for the division of these heirlooms.

Like any estate planning, it is vital to date and sign the documents.

Whether you are working on assessing and settling the estate of a parent or preparing your own estate plan, discuss your heirlooms and other assets with your estate planning attorney.

Final note: Special thanks to our client “KW in Leavenworth” for recommending this WSJ article as the subject for a blog post.

ReferenceThe Wall Street Journal (July 30, 2023) “Pass On Your Heirlooms, Not Family Drama

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