The Young Collector
Years ago, when we had our first Christmas together while we were in graduate school in Delaware, we put up a Christmas tree. It was by just about any standards a Charlie Brown tree. We didn’t have much money to spend, so when we needed a tree topper, Andrew cut a star out of heavy cardboard and wrapped it in tinfoil, which was sort of a family tradition. His dad had done the same thing for Andrew’s mom back on their first Christmas together in 1964. (He was an engineer. The difference in their stars is a comment of some sort on a liberal arts education.) Andrew’s mom, of course, had kept the star, and when they heard we had revisited the tradition, Andrew’s dad made all three of his children their own stars as Christmas gifts.
It’s a simple story about a family tradition, yes, but also a great lesson in estate planning, because it turns out that the tinfoil star was one thing Andrew and his siblings all wanted to have. Sure, if it ever came up, they would have worked something out, but that isn’t the case for many families. Family disputes over material possessions are something we see too often in the antiques/auction business. With that in mind, we thought we’d write from our perspective about how family estates can best be dispersed. (Insert the usual disclaimer that this is not legal advice; consult your attorney, etc.) Not all our thoughts might apply to all situations, but based on what we’ve seen, these are some ideas that might be useful. After all, we’re all going to die eventually, and that will be a blow to all who love us. No one wants to follow that with a second blow, or even worse, a series of blows, that comes from ambiguous circumstances or enormous tasks.
Ask your kids. Just ask. Yes, maybe that’s an uncomfortable conversation. Maybe they’ll feel awkward; maybe you will. As Hollie spends all day navigating the formation of a sibling relationship, teaching Nora and Nat to be each other’s first friend and encouraging kindness, patience, tolerance, and empathy, she can think of nothing sadder than the two of them having a relationship-damaging disagreement in 50 or 60 years over custody of what is ultimately just some material possession. Wouldn’t you want the chance to help them work that out now or have some say? On the other hand, your kids may surprise you by the things that they want. After all, Andrew and his sisters might have come to blows over a tinfoil-covered piece of cardboard. (Not really. If the childhood sibling dynamic holds up, they’d have just made him eat something terrible.)
Some of Hollie’s favorite things from her grandmother are “just” measuring cups and wooden spoons, but after a childhood spent cooking and baking with her grandmother in a cozy kitchen, those are the things that are most evocative. Let your children take a piece of masking tape and put their names on the bottom of any pieces of furniture they might want or make a list or perhaps even consider letting them take things now that you might not miss. You don’t have to let them go through your entire house, of course, and we’re not talking about opening yourself up for kids trying to grab what’s not offered to them, but you can ask specific questions that you could use help with. Are there any pieces of furniture that you want? Do you want your old bedroom furniture? I’m thinking of cleaning out the basement—would you like any of the paintings that came from Aunt Martha’s? You get the idea. The important thing is to have some kind of conversation. We have seen more times than we can count families damaged permanently by some rift over material possessions. And probably more than a majority of those times, the disagreement has been over stuff that isn’t that valuable or for which the kids have an over-inflated expectation and a lack of knowledge.
Don’t guilt them. Ownership of material possessions has skyrocketed over the last two generations. Our grandparents typically came from families with few possessions to pass on, from large families where things were divided among a significant number of siblings, or from families where, by the time grandparents passed, their children had grown children and worn-out furniture that they were only too happy to replace with the nicer pieces their parents had purchased later in life, because furniture was expensive and you made do, even if it wasn’t your style. Now, however, everyone’s house is packed full of Sunday-flyer-furniture-store-going-out-of-business pieces, and your kids aren’t going to want to toss their newish leather sectional in favor of your chintz-covered loveseat or the enormous armoire/entertainment system that matches their six-piece bedroom set in favor of your Chippendale tall chest. They also aren’t in all likelihood going to want every single thing you’ve kept from your parents, so take the opportunity to have an educated say in what happens to those things, and, in the tidal wave of “art” created by their own children, they might not want their own things either. You might even want to go ahead and sell some things now. Great stuff often finds its way back onto the market through kids who don’t know (and yes, don’t honestly care, in some cases) exactly what their parents had.
Make notes. Write down who wants what, write down whom you want to have what, write down what they might not remember about Aunt Edna’s glass vase that was a wedding present from a cousin who worked at the glass factory, and label and sort family photographs. They think they’ll remember everything, we know, but trust us, they’ll get married, merge households, and 15 years later, they’ll be standing around at Thanksgiving trying to figure out whether a handful of linen napkins belonged to a paternal great-grandmother or if a maternal grandmother embroidered them, or if they were some filler in a box lot with a painted frame from some estate sale.
Get organized in general. You don’t have to reduce yourself to living on a mattress on the floor, and don’t give up the enjoyment of your free time, but consider taking a few minutes each week to sort out an area, even just a drawer, in your house. Take a look around your house with a detached eye to determine what kind of work it would take to empty it out, and, if you’re so inclined, think about what that might mean for your kids. Do they live out of state? Is it going to be difficult with their line of work or with their kids to take the time to make multiple trips and use up vacation days to sort things out? Even small organizational “weeding” efforts can make a big difference and will make someone’s life easier: clean the medicine cabinet out and deal with any expired drugs, weed out your Tupperware cabinet in the kitchen and get rid of all the lidless containers and all the container-less lids, bag up some clothes or coats you don’t wear any longer and drop them off at Goodwill along with that old lamp or fan or radio that’s sitting around in the basement. And your kids’ stuff! Just think of how much less there would be to deal with if they’d come get their own stuff out of their old bedroom closet! And your bedroom closet. And the basement. Wrap it up, and start giving it back to them for birthdays and Christmases!
Give gifts. Andrew’s dad started a great tradition last year by giving each family a photo album at Christmas. He is the family photographer, so he has decided that each year he’ll fix albums of his favorite images from the year for all of us. That’s a meaningful way to condense a lot of memories and hand someone something that’s already organized—a far cry from worrying about finding files on his computer someday and getting them printed and in albums ourselves. Has your daughter always liked her grandmother’s wedding band? Does your son like your father’s desk that’s in the guest room? Do your grandkids have good memories of playing with some of your kids’ old toys that are in the basement? Why not think about giving it to them on some special occasion or just on their next visit? It’ll be a bonus that you’ll actually get to see them use and appreciate it.
Be realistic. There is no way that the succeeding generations of your family, with, quite likely, full homes of their own, are going to be able to take everything you’ve owned and loved in your life. Focus on your own enjoyment of something, express very clearly why it’s something you love, and let it go at that. After all, it’s all just stuff at the end of the day, and if they don’t want it, you can move forward.
Make a plan, particularly if you have a serious collection. You may think that your kids know or have paid attention or will remember, but unless your kids have done collecting of their own and understand the auction model of business or the ins and outs of being an antiques dealer, you can probably expect their heads to be turned by either the person who makes their lives easiest or the person who offers them the best rate. You don’t want the final determination about where your collection goes to be based solely on whatever business your kids can find in the phone book to empty your house, broom-sweep it, and deliver the key to the local real estate agent.
Run your own business. Part of the struggle in the lives between parents and children is that shift of power. It’s hard not to realize regularly when holding Nora’s arm to steady her or when trying to think of how best to help Nat be comfortable in a new setting that someday it may well be their job to do those things for us. And, boy, is that going to be annoying and reassuring. None of us want anyone making our business their business. Our business is our business, we’re quite confident. Life is like a business, keeping track of things, paying bills, planning for expenses, even choosing who you surround yourself with, and settling an estate can be, at best, like running a small business for a while: phone calls and paperwork, appointments with attorneys and real estate agents, but right now, it’s your business, so do your best to enjoy that fact and take care of it—and your family—yourself.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectorsblogspot.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest