Close up view of a woman's hand holding an antique sterling silver locket necklace in the shape of a heart.

How to Distribute Family Heirlooms


From pieces of art to antique jewelry, here are tips on how to distribute family heirlooms after death. Learn more about estate planning with Fifth Third.

Throughout our lives, many of us collect items of passion from art to jewelry, antiques, crafts, sports memorabilia. The list is endless—even real estate can be considered an heirloom.

How do you distribute these valuable heirlooms after you die? With careful planning, you can make sure the items are divided among your heirs exactly how you choose, without causing conflict among your loved ones.

The sentimental value of the family heirlooms is priceless, of course. But it’s important to establish a financial value as well. That will help you better determine who gets what.

Cataloging Your Collection

Make sure to catalog your items, so you know what you have. Then perhaps the best strategy is to take your items to a reputable appraiser. That could be an art dealer, an antique dealer, a sports memorabilia dealer, etc.: someone with the knowledge to provide you the accurate dollar value of your heirloom.

It’s a good idea to discuss your distribution plans with your heirs early on, so you have a clear idea of their desires, and they have a clear idea of yours.

It’s also important to specify in a legal document who gets what—this will hopefully eliminate any potential disputes among your heirs. You might think that talking it through with them is enough, but things can easily go awry.

For example, your son may let you know now that it's fine for your daughter to inherit the family jewelry. But his tune may change if he gets married and wants his wife to receive the jewels. Heirs also may forget or misunderstand verbal agreements.

Your heirs may have the best of intentions and get along swimmingly now, but relations can sour in a heartbeat once heirlooms come into play.

Benefits of Legal Document

Putting your wishes in a legal document also helps keep your estate from going through probate, another potential source of conflict.

You can detail the distributions in your will, or you can do it in a personal property memo. The advantage of a memo is that it wouldn’t be part of potential probate proceedings and would thus maintain the confidentiality of your instructions.

Remember to name both a primary and secondary beneficiary, as the primary beneficiary might die before the distribution, or in rare cases turn it down. Also, remember to update your documents if your wishes change.

Your heirlooms will obviously have different financial values, and it can be a bit tricky to ensure that each of your heirs receives a distribution about equal to the others. You might want to discuss with your heirs ahead of time how the heirlooms will be allocated to avoid arguments.

Possible Distribution Structures

You could stipulate that your heirs forge an agreement themselves concerning how to share the heirlooms. Then if they can’t reach an accord, your estate executor can be the final judge. You can also designate someone specifically to oversee decisions regarding your heirlooms.

You can have a drawing among your heirs, requiring that they choose the heirlooms in equal shares. If there are any inequities after the drawing, they can be eliminated through cash payments between heirs. Another option is for your executor to conduct a silent auction among your heirs, though this could lead to conflicts.

If you’re worried about heirs contesting the distribution details, in some states, you can add a “no contest clause” to your will. With such a provision, anyone who contests an element of the will would lose his/her right to any inheritance at all. That should put the kibosh on legal complaints from heirs about their distributions—the last thing you want is family members suing each other.

An Advisor Can Help

As you can see, there are many complications in the process to distribute your heirlooms. An experienced estate planning advisor can help guide you through that process.

The bottom line is that your heirlooms are very important to you, and you probably want to make sure they’re divided up in a specific way. With careful planning, such as utilizing an appraiser and putting your wishes in writing, you can guarantee that the heirlooms will be distributed exactly to your specifications.

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