Table and Tea Set
My brothers and I are working out an equitable and peaceable way to distribute family stuff. Unfortunately, we are the descendants of many generations of craft workers, artists, and collectors, so there are a great many things to be considered: furniture carved by our Mother’s Grandmother, mirrors and stained glass created by our Mother’s Grandfather, our Father’s Grandfather’s iron train set, our Father’s Mother’s painted set of cider mugs with matching pitcher, paintings and drawings by our Mother, etc.
Having seen several excellent examples of nasty, greedy, and predatory behavior during estate distributions, we are seeking a better way to bestow heirlooms fairly. Our motivation comes from growing up during a family fight over an estate that started in 1990 and lasted for more than ten years; the quarrel about which descendant got what eventually outlasted the lifetime of the original executor. We hope to avoid that experience in our generation. As our Father says: “I would rather burn it than fight about it.”
I am writing this out because when I searched the web for a good example, a property distribution process to model ours on, everything I found seemed to be associated with contentious divorces. I did not find any models in which the parties were assumed to be on speaking terms. My brothers and I each want some family stuff but we also want to preserve our good relationship more than we want any particular thing. I hope that the system we have developed over the last six years will be of use to other families who share our values.
Our parents are both living and have very generously and foresightedly agreed to distribute a selection of their family possessions in advance of their passing (which we hope will be many years in the future). My brothers and I have been in this distribution process for the last six years and have already sorted out who gets which of the larger pieces of furniture. In addition to getting a family chore done, we are learning more about each other and getting closer through these discussions. In this context “distribute” means transferring ownership but not necessarily the objects themselves. For example, my parents dining room table was given to me several years ago in one of our distributions; however, my parents will continue to use the table for their lifetimes.
At first, the distribution lists were annual and small, with just three or four heirlooms going to each of us. The distribution we are discussing now is our most ambitious, with fifty-four heirlooms to be sorted into three groups of eighteen. Here is an overview of the process we originally used:
- Our parents make a list of heirlooms for us to consider and distribute. Usually, this means my having several discussions with our Mother since I live closest. One of my brothers lives at the other end of California and the other lives across the country, in Massachusetts.
- My brothers and I ask questions – how big is it? what condition is it in? where did it come from – is there any special meaning to it? Sometimes pictures are distributed.
- My brothers and I check with our spouses to collect their opinions.
- My brothers and I have a three-way phone call during which we decide who gets what. The call is only between the three of us, no spouses or parents.
- I tell our Mother what we decided in our call.
- Our Mother writes each of us a letter giving us the items.
With so many more items to distribute this time, it has been harder to come to a decision. Our Mother sent us a list in August we are still discussing. We had not seen many of the items, so the whole family took a house tour when my brothers visited during Christmas. We walked around the house we grew up in and asked our Mother to point to each item on her list. Last Saturday, my brothers and I had a preliminary phone call.
We discussed what “family furniture” meant to us. If our Mother bought it, does that still count as “family”? When our Great Grandparents’ early Victorian house on Circle Park in Knoxville, Tennessee, was torn down in 1964, our Grandmother removed the front doors. Eventually our Mother had the doors installed on her house in San Francisco. Are those antique doors “family furniture”?
My brothers asked me to sort the fifty four items into three groups prior to our next call. I decided to ignore the potential market value of the items and focus on three important categories: size, history, and who actually wants the thing. I created three groups of 18 items with roughly the same number of things in each of these categories in each group:
- Size: Small (antique toys, table clocks, the Cherokee hunting bow, the cider set), Medium (side tables, small chairs, stained glass panels and mirrors, our Great Grandfather’s glass case of stuffed birds), and Large (the front doors, our Father’s white leather arm chair, an 8′ tall hall mirror in a gold plaster frame, a huge wooden ice box, a set of balloon back chairs with seat cushions embroidered by our Great Grandmother).
- Special Family Origin: anything made by a family member, the bannister from the Circle Park house, our Great Grandmother’s wicker rocking chair, etc.
- Desireability: Anything that more than one of us expressed interest in during the preliminary phone call.
I sent the sorted groups to my brothers with the following proposed process:
- Step 1 – Before the Meeting – Review the groups, ask questions, talk with spouses, say if there are one or two “heart’s desire” items
- Step 2 – During the Meeting – Each of us picks a group (1, 2 or 3)
- Step 3 – Accept / acknowledge conditions to replace installed items (such as the front doors)
- Step 4 – Discuss trades. Other than trades, the group is distributed intact, where and as is.
I am curious to see how well this sorting worked and whether the distribution discussion goes better as a result.
Note: None of the items pictured are for sale. I do not provide pricing or sales advice for similar items. Please do not ask.
Images Copyright 2008 by Katy Dickinson
13 June 2016: Images retaken and reposted, note added.