Plan ahead for a discussion on how to leave your personal family possessions for the next generation

A casual conversation with family members about your non-titled goods can help preserve family memories.

Families today often have three or more generations still living; blended families are the norm, and domestic partners and close friends are often considered as close as family.  Many people make provisions for distribution of their property, money and vehicles upon their death but few make decisions about the small “stuff” that is filled with memories and family history.  These things are referred to as “non-titled” property; items that don’t have a legal document connected to them. 

Making decisions on where your personal belonging will end up after your death is something that we all should consider as we age.  Should my daughter get my wedding ring? Is it fair to the girls if we leave all of dad’s tools and guns to the boys?  Who gets Grandpa’s antique rocking chair?  How do we divide up the family china? A University of Minnesota Extension bulletin reminds us that different perceptions of what’s “fair” are normal.

Many of our non-titled goods come with a rich family history.  How do you start a conversation about the personal possessions that you value?  Sensitive topics are often the most difficult to discuss.  Michigan State University Extension recommends some guidelines for beginning conversations with your family about your personal property.

Think about the items that are important to you and why they are important.  Make a list of items that you would like to talk about and start a plan for beginning a discussion.  You might want to include where the item came from and why it is important to you.  Remember that not everything that is important to you will have deep meaning for others.  Not everyone will want to have your enormous collection of Christmas ornaments, but your granddaughter may tell you how much she would love to have one special ornament that she remembers from her childhood.

Look for opportunities to have discussions about personal property that are natural and in a casual setting.  Washing the family china following a holiday dinner may be the perfect time to begin a discussion about where the dishes came from.  Share anecdotal stories from holidays past.  This upcoming deer hunting season might spur a conversation about the bow or firearm that Grandpa owned.  Planning for an upcoming vacation can lead to an intimate talk about the mementos you’ve collected in your travels over the years.

Practice what you would like to say and share your thoughts with a trusted friend to see how it sounds to someone else. Begin your conversation with a question.  “When your dad and I retire and downsize to a small apartment I’m not sure what we should do with all of your Grandma’s china.  What are your thoughts?”  “What would you do with Grandpa’s coin collection if I were no longer here?” 

Listen to and be observant of the reactions of your family members.  Communication is only 10 percent verbal.   We communicate in several ways; the words we use, our body language and the tone of our voice.  Listen to questions and concerns and provide feedback.  Share your feelings about your thoughts by using “I” messages; “I thought that the grandkids might each like to choose one of the teacups that I’ve collected over the years.”  Many family items can spur strong emotion and deep feelings.  By beginning a discussion before you have to make end of life decisions, you can communicate more freely and with less emotion.

Share stories.  It is important to share your feelings and your stories about personal belongings.  Often stories go untold and no one will ever know the sentimental family history behind an item.  The story of how you or your family acquired an item may be more valuable to a family member than the item itself.  Don’t assume that your family knows how you acquired something. Many people have been gifted with a family heirloom that they did not want or have an attachment to simply because they knew nothing about the item. 

Discussions about gifting your personal belongings are difficult to begin, but are valuable to have. Explore the laws in your state to be certain how to proceed or talk with an attorney or trusted advisor about how to begin the process that will allow you to share your treasured items as well as the memories with those who will value them.

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