Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

6 Responses

  1. The portrait is officially Mary’s she can do what she wants with it. If she feels guilty about this then maybe she would feel less guilty if she were to trade it for something she wishes she had received when things were divided up.

    • I tend to agree with you that the portraits are Mary’s but she still has to respond to her sister’s request in a way that makes that clear but also is considerate of her sister’s feelings.

  2. Connie must know her sister well enough to know whether she was acting spoiled or truly didn’t want them. Either way, if she took
    the candlesticks for the right reasons (whatever those were when she took them) then she changed her mind why feel bad because someone changed theirs (spoiled or real). I would wonder why her sister feels she needs to try to make Connie feel bad, I suspect that is the family dynamic at work and the object (candlesticks) was a tool to continue the same behaviors.

    • Yes, families are complicated. And the action and reaction to the candlesticks are probably rooted in childhood, as you point out, but that doesn’t make them any less real or any less painful for the sisters.

  3. Interesting article. One never knows what the future will hold regarding these issues.

    • Sometimes downsizing the family home feels like a constant struggle. We think we’ve made the best decisions possible and then something (or someone) crops up and we have to deal with the object and the emotions all over again.

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