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

A Conversation for the Holidays


The holiday season presents families who are gathering together an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about family plans and what the future holds for the older generation. Or does it?

You can’t make your parents talk about what may be a difficult subject for them – how and where they are going to spend their later years.

You can’t expect your siblings to fall in line with your plans just because you think it’s the right time.

You can’t get rid of clutter or divide up family items, unless everyone is on board with the idea.

What can you do?

Remember that all-important conversation – the one that’s so difficult to initiate – is about what’s best for your parents. It’s at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you. You’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

  • Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.
  • Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.
  • Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may, or may not, want your opinions: they may, or may not, want your physical help.
  • Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.
  • Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

So what can you bring to the family table this season? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and bring along a copy of our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Happy Holidays!

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

“Emptying the Family Home Without Battling Siblings”

Many thanks to Jill Yanish and PBS’s Next Avenue for featuring us and our new e-book Moving On in her article about downsizing the home. Here it is: 

Keep? Sell? Toss? These three options are ammo for the battle when clearing the family home after a parent leaves it. Read more…

“3 Things That Will Help You Downsize and De-clutter”

Again many thanks to Rachel Adelson for her coverage of the various  issues raised when downsizing the family home. This is the second in her three-part series, published in the Huffington Post  on March 17, 2014.

huff post 2

My previous post about the emotional journey of downsizing traveled the Internet widely. The discussion of how to work through separation anxiety from “stuff” seemed to touch a chord. Sigh.

Read more…

Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home


Moving On is now available as an e-book!

We’re pleased to announce that the new e-book edition of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is now available. It’s updated, with live links to a variety of helpful resources.

Here’s what readers and reviewers have said about Moving On: 

“Well-organized, easy-to-read, with lots of practical advice…”

“An essential ‘how-to’ book, with a special sense of how to preserve family relations…”

“…injects an impartial, yet understanding, voice of reason into an often highly charged subject.”

“…a downsizing bible.”

If you’ll be gathering with family over the holidays and plan to talk about transitions in living arrangements, our book can help make the conversations go easier and the planning process smoother.

And…this is one book that won’t add to the clutter!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, now available as an e-book.

Summer Reading for Downsizing Procrastinators


Our last post was  a hymn to the value of occasional procrastination, by my coauthor. And I think that was a very appropriate summertime post. If you can’t kick back and relax at least a little bit during the summer, when can you?

Of course if you are like me you like to make sure you are never truly wasting time, even when you are procrastinating. So I thought I would follow up our post on procrastination with a list of “beach reading.” About downsizing the home.


Well, I’ve never really believed in the concept that beach reading should be different than any other reading. Why would you want to waste your time reading something not worth reading just because you are at the beach?

Okay, I admit it. Since reading about downsizing the home would almost inevitably include some list-making, perhaps it’s really not such great beach reading.

But it could be excellent vacation reading for some people.

So if you are in the process of procrastinating about downsizing your home and getting rid of stuff, and maybe are feeling a bit guilty about it, here are a few books that you might want to take a look at while you are cooling your heels somewhere nice, and getting ready to re-engage with the task of downsizing once you get home.

Caring for Your Family Treasures by Jane S. and Richard W. Long

Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home  Full disclosure: this is the book WE wrote. And we’re very pleased to report that many people have told us that it has been very helpful to them and their families as they entered, and worked their way through, the process of going through and dividing up all the “stuff” in their homes. We hope you may find it helpful too.

Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost and Gail Skeketee. Hoarders take it to an extreme, but many of us have trouble letting go of things. This is a very interesting, intelligent and informed, and compassionate look at an affliction that has gotten a lot of press in recent years, and far too often not enough understanding, by two people who have devoted their careers to studying this phenomenon.

Unclutter Your Home by Donna Smallin

Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate? A very practical, helpful workbook and guide for families starting out the process of dividing the possessions in an estate, by social scientist Marlene Stum at the University of Minnesota.

Wishing you happy reading, happy relaxing, and happy (and productive) procrastinating!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Getting Rid of … Musical Instruments

This is another post in our occasional series called “Getting Rid of…” but somehow “getting rid of” and “musical instruments” seem like an incongruous pairing.

We get rid of stuff we don’t want and yet most of us have such heartfelt feelings about musical instruments. They remind us of the joy of playing them ourselves or listening to others play for us.

The most important downsizing tenet – keep the memories, toss the item – comes into play here. If we remember the joy, we can pass the musical instruments on to someone who will welcome them.

You can begin your quest to donate by contacting music teachers in your local school, private music teachers, a local symphony orchestra, or area arts camp to ask if someone knows of a deserving student.

For a tax deduction, organizations that accept musical instruments can provide a letter with the instrument’s value.

Here are some charities that refurbish musical instruments and donate or loan them to students.

 Charity Music

 Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation

Collectibles with Causes

And some charities even accept pianos!

Instruments of Change

Keys 4/4 Kids

88 Keys Foundation

So keep the joy in your heart and share it at the same time. Donate a musical instrument that you are no longer using and see that it gets into the hands of a deserving student.

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

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