In the piles of stuff we leave behind, who can say what our children will consider a treasure: the Rosenthal dinnerware for 12 (minor chip on one dinner plate) or the well-worn cereal bowls that were filled with Cheerios every morning while the kids sat elbow to elbow with their Dad and talked about stuff.
We narrowed down our legacy of give-aways when we rightsized our way from suburban house (43 years of family living) to an urban apartment (minimal storage space). We offered our grown kids a pick of the pre-move litter. They wanted no cut glass vases or silverplate candlelabras--items deeded us by our parents and hauled out for special occasions. They opted for stuff with personal or sentimental value--the piano being Exhibit One and their grandmother's hand-painted tea cups another.
We moved with our favorite pieces of furniture, works of art and two bins of family memorablia. So there is still some sorting out our kids will have to do when we're no longer in charge. (Hopefully no fights will break out over who gets my collection of whimsical cats. See above)
Even though we've slimmed down, we should make a list of the stuff we have that our kids will have to divide up among themselves or give away. Like many of our friends, we keep putting it off. There's the temptation to say, 'Let the kids figure that out.'
"Wrong" is what the financial/estate planning experts say. When we pass away, it's an emotional experience for our kids. The 'stuff" we leave behind may hit a deep sentimental note for one of them or--and here's the problem--one item may mean a lot to all of them. The sentimental stuff turns out to be the more contentious than the "valuables" and has the potential to create nasty divisions among the inheritees.
When we write our wills, it's relatively simple to divide the monetary stuff--the bank accounts, stocks and bonds, real estate holdings. A simple formula will do, as in: three kids, divide three ways. But the other stuff--the low- or no-value things like needlepoint pillows, rocking chair, cat statuettes: There isn't an algorithm for dividing it up fairly. If son A gets the vase we picked up in Greece, does daughter B get the pasta bowl from Tuscany? Is there something so evocative of childhood--the cookie jar, the kitchen table--that all the grown kids in the family want it?
Some families do the picking and choosing with their children. The Washington Post ran a story about parents who laid out all the tangible items, gathered their grown children together and gave them each $2,000 worth of monopoly money. The kids could then bid on what they would want--when the time came. Says a son, who admits he got into a bidding war with his brother over a living room chair, "I have had friends fight with siblings over their parents' stuff--not the expensive stuff, but odds and ends that each child wanted." His family, the son says, "avoided this problem brilliantly. Dad was the auctioneer and mom recorded the results."
Friends of ours whose basements and attics are packed with photos, memorablia, two generations of dishes and artwork, have taken various non-auction approaches to parceling out the eventual disposition of their stuff.
One is doing it with stickers: Yellow dots under the chairs, rugs and lamps they want their daughter to have; red sticker dots for their son. They hope the stickers stay stuck and that the kids find the distribution fair. As to the accumulated stuff in the basement storage spaces, they're leaving that to their son's and daughter's good will.
Another friend is making a list and using past observations to figure out who should get what. They have seen their oldest son eye the wooden statute in the dining room and their youngest son admire the landscape painting in the family room. They want their daughter to have the jewelry--the rings, bangles and necklaces handed down by great-grandmothers and grandmothers. There is one caveat: the eldest son's daughter (and the first grandchild who's now a teenager) gets an early pick from the jewelry collection.
There may not be a "best way" here. An auction would be fun, but even a straightforward list beats having our kids duke it out when we're gone.