Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Living with Antiques Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“The Great Divide:  Divvying up Possessions without Dividing the Family” Hartford Courant (January 11, 2008)  Estate planning requires hiring lawyers and accountants to comb through the fine print of the tax codes and inheritance laws. What to do with the family silver is a lot less straightforward. Linda Stamm has seen it all. She is the owner of Winter Associates, an auction house and appraisal firm in Plainville, Connecticut.  Whether you are cleaning out the closets or preparing for something more, um, comprehensive, she offers words of hope: “Good communication makes a difference.” That means talking about how you want to dispose of your possessions. It means, too, listening to your parents when they bring up the subject.  “‘When I’m dead’ is something people don’t like to hear,” says Stamm. “It’s easy to rush in and say, ‘Don’t worry about that. You’re only 65.’” Instead, she recommends tactful but explicit discussion to clarify how things should be distributed. Write it down: On this point appraisers are unanimous. A notebook detailing who-gets-what will be vitally useful to your heirs and executors.  The follow-up advice is to put the notebook in a conspicuous place. But what if Grandma leaves behind no instructions? In that case, the family should make an effort to meet in her home. Mistrust can be an obstacle, says Lynn Westmeyer of the Good Riddance Girls, a Stamford company that organizes estate sales. Like many who advise retirees and downsizers, she finds that family conferences prevent problems down the road.  “You’re not left wondering what happened to the blue vase because you were there when it was handed out.” There are many ways to organize an on-site dispersal.  The simplest is for the heirs to pick things out, based on birth order.  It helps to identify, in advance, the “hot” property. Stamm recommends handing out packs of colored stickers, so that people can make clear what they want. It’s revealing, she says, to see which objects attract the most stickers.  Revealing, too, she adds, is seeing who uses all their stickers. Another approach is to make people pay for what they take.  You can hold a sale, where money changes hands, or you can have the value of the objects deducted from the buyer’s inheritance. “People take care of things they pay for,” says Westmeyer. A big no-no is giving heirlooms to step-children.  (“Give them things acquired during the marriage,” advises Stamm.) The ex-daughter-in-law who walks off with your mother’s flatware is another staple of appraisal lore. “There’s one in every family,” says Westmeyer. Most property decisions are made within the family circle. Sometimes, though, you need to hire an appraiser, who can provide a written estimate of the furnishings and house wares. An appraisal can be legally required by the probate court.  Other signs that it would be advisable to bring in a professional: The objects have already been appraised for an insurance policy or an envelope of gallery receipts is found among the paperwork. Things that have been in the family for many years could benefit from objective evaluation before being passed on to the next generation. That way, the new owners will be brought up to date on current market values. So much for estate planning as it is practiced by prudent and rational people.  Inevitably, though, conflicts arise—and they’re not always about money. “Money is a lot easier to divide than stuff,” says Westmeyer, drawing on her thirty years of experience.  Mom’s favorite platter might sell on eBay for $10, but that derisory sum does not reflect the eager possessiveness of her middle-aged children. Stamm agrees: “Sometimes the dissension is strongest over sentimental objects.” She gives the example of the tablecloth that one family used every Thanksgiving. Covered with wine stains and cigarette burns, it was, nonetheless, highly coveted because of its childhood associations. The important thing is to distinguish between financial and sentimental value.  The Chippendale highboy, that turns out to be worth $50,000, needs to be classed as an asset along with the house and 401K.  If one person takes a big-ticket piece, the value needs to be calculated into the balance of his inheritance. Normally, though, the figures are more modest. A visit to the local auction house can be instructive. Complete sets of sterling silver flatware, still in the original fitted case, can be had for as little as one or two thousand dollars. Steuben vases, china, and crystal—all emblems of middleclass refinement—are likewise knocked down at reasonable bids, usually in the low hundreds. The cold-cash sums do not in anyway way diminish the personal value of objects, but knowing them can help someone sort through the panoply of old wedding gifts and mid-life splurges. According to Stamm, “People often take things out of guilt.  They say, ‘this isn’t really my style,’ but they take it anyway.” She advises against hauling home a lot of stuff that will go straight to the attic. There is no need to keep everything, she emphasizes. Then again, you can go splits, with your niece taking the Lenox plates and bowls, while you get the coffee things and serving dishes. But before you start making two stacks, bear in mind that odd pieces of silver and china are worth very little. As always, you have to know if you are handling a set of pretty dishes rich in family memories—or a small nest egg. Not sure if taking something is desirable or appropriate? Ask yourself a few questions: Why do you want it? Does the eggbeater bring back memories of helping Grandma in the kitchen—or do you want it for the very human, though not very grown up, reason that someone else wants it? Can you use it? Sporting equipment, barware, and musical instruments are of little use to the sedentary, abstemious, and tone deaf. What’s it worth? Aunt Betty’s sideboard was appraised at $800.  But what’s it really worth? Is it worth risking a falling out with your cousin?  Would you be just as happy with the dining table? Ideally, family things are a link with the past, not a source of conflict. Planning can help ensure a smooth handover. “We all put it off,” says Westmeyer.  If you put if off too long, there is the risk of your table linens ending up in the wrong hands—and that will be the least of the trouble.