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

Advertisements

A Conversation for the Holidays

bird-scan

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

Is an Appraisal the Way to Go?

Getting an Appraisal photo3

My parents’ Herter Brothers furniture.  We researched it online, in books, and in museums, and then had it appraised on “Antiques Roadshow” before we sold it to a dealer.

As we approach the holidays and anticipate spending time with our families, some of us may be traveling to houses that are full of stuff and some inevitable questions are sure to arise. A discussion of “What will we do with all this stuff?” may lead to “Who will get what?” which may lead to “How much is this worth?”

Is an appraisal right for you? An appraiser can give you the value of a single piece, or can go through the entire house, in what is called a “look-see,” to tell you which pieces may be valuable. The value of an item is determined by its condition, its rarity, and its provenance or history. The stories passed down in the family about the original source of items, however, are not always accurate, says Helaine Fendleman, coauthor of Price It Yourself! and past president of the Appraisers Association of America. So you will need more than family lore to establish provenance.

A good appraiser, according to Fendleman, is someone who is sensitive and caring and who understands the financial responsibility of giving an accurate appraisal. Appraisers will charge a flat fee or by the hour. (It is illegal to charge a percentage of the item being evaluated, since this would lead to artificially increasing its value.) It’s important to hire someone you feel comfortable with and someone you feel is honest.

Some appraisers may simply assign a dollar value for the objects, but most will also shepherd you through the process of selling them, by suggesting the best place to sell it—to an antiques store, dealer, or consignment shop—and then will help you work with the store or dealer, if that is what you want.

Sometimes an appraiser will suggest that the item has little or no monetary value and that it would be more appropriate to donate it to charity than to try to sell it. Don’t be discouraged. As Fendleman says, “Every object in the world has a value; you just may not like the value it has.” And of course, the process of appraising has nothing to do with emotional or sentimental value. In some cases, finding out that a particular item has no financial worth may be a relief.

To find a professional appraiser, ask your lawyer, banker, real estate agent, or friends for a referral. The appraiser should ask probing questions in the initial interview, and you should, too. Ask what qualifies him or her to appraise your items, what their area of expertise is, and what professional organizations they belong to.

Can you estimate what something is worth without a professional appraiser? Certainly you can do your own research in the library, on the Internet, or in museums, and browse through antique shops and attend auctions to get an idea of what your special items are worth. If you have the time, researching the history and value of a favorite family item can be fun.

Online appraisals are another option, but they are only as good as the photographs you send in, and the expertise of the appraiser. If you plan to sell the item, you may want to then hire an appraiser who can see the object in person.

You can check out these professional appraisal organizations for more help.

The Appraisal Foundation is the organization that has issued the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP).

Appraisers Association of America, Inc. (AAA) is the oldest professional association of appraisers and is the recognized authority for standards, legal issues, and regulations. It provides a database of members that can be searched by location and by specialty.

International Society of Appraisers (ISA) has a library of over 50 webinars, some of which are free.

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

What Lessons Have We Learned?

house in b-w

Having emptied our own family homes of decades’ worth of accumulated stuff, we are well aware of how much work it entails and what an emotional roller coaster it can be.

After having had a chance to sit back and ponder the experience, we are very glad our parents saved all the family stuff they did, but we also know in our hearts that the most valuable thing in the house was the lives that have been lived there.

Working with multiple generations to empty a much-loved home does present issues, however. How one deals with those issues differs with each family and with each family member.

How do we assess the process? Was it a job well done? Were there issues that were resolved? Or was the process fraught with problems? What did we learn from downsizing?

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask ourselves.

  • Are our parents content with their new living arrangements? Do they feel surrounded by a few favorite things? Were they happy, or at least able to come to terms with, what they let go of?
  • Are we still on speaking terms with all of our siblings? If we are, then we can feel, rightly, that it was a job well done. If not, what can we do to mend fences?
  • What have we taught our children as we worked through the process of emptying our parents’ home? About the process of downsizing? About working with others? About the importance of possessions? And about the importance of family?
  • What are we doing about our own accumulated stuff to make things easier for our children when we are no longer around to help them?
  • What have we learned about the value of stuff? Has it made us grateful for what we have and, more importantly, for our families?

Things to ponder. What would you add to the list?

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…

Are you a “Keeper” or a “Thrower” When Downsizing?

secretary_illo
David McGrievey

When she retired in early 2010 journalist Ellen Goodman wrote: “There is a trick to a graceful exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and to let go.”

There is a time to let go of a family home, too, and often it’s not as graceful an exit as some family members may have hoped for. It entails multiple steps which include, in broad terms, first, coming to an agreement that it’s time to let go of the home; next, creating a timetable that works for everyone involved; and lastly, actually getting rid of lots of stuff.

Getting rid of our stuff is a difficult task for everyone, but especially for people who appreciate the memories that are intertwined with the possessions.

When we were interviewing people for our book Moving On, we found, as we say in the book, that there are “basically two kinds of people when it comes to cleaning out a house. There are ‘the throwers,’ who relish the experience of clearing out and moving on, and who will empty a house quickly and efficiently. And there are ‘the keepers,’ who will be compelled to preserve special things as well as memories, and who will linger over the process.” And often the “throwers” are married to the “keepers” and vice versa, so working together harmoniously is the goal.

What’s it like to be a “keeper” or a “thrower” in the midst of downsizing?

“Throwers” are people “who relish the experience of clearing out and moving on, and who will empty a house quickly and efficiently.”

On the upside, “throwers” get the job done. They are people who can let go of things easily and seem to have the ability to separate the object from the memory. “Throwers” may not feel the emotional component of downsizing or they may be less inclined to delve into those feelings. They do not get bogged down in emotions or memories.

On the downside, by working quickly, “throwers” may miss out on both good things and interesting experiences. On the practical side, they may miss hidden money or valuables. A recent post by Goodwill tells the story of an employee who found $2,600 inside a bag of donated clothing. Donated, perhaps, too quickly by a “thrower.” On the emotional side, “throwers” may miss reading poignant entries from a grandparent’s diary or perusing a parent’s yearbook or discovering their own baby clothes.

“Keepers” are people who are “compelled to preserve special things as well as memories, and who will linger over the process.”

On the upside, “keepers” are the ones who preserve both memories and objects. Recently a display at my local library showed memorabilia that was well over 100 years old – a photograph of the building (the street was so different!) and the interior (the librarian’s desk was the same!) and a ledger listing patrons’ names and the books they were taking out – all saved by a “keeper” of a librarian so we could enjoy the history of the library decades later. “Keepers” donate items to libraries, historical societies, and genealogical societies, as well as pass along to their own family the stories and the mementoes that make each family unique.

On the downside, “keepers” take too long to get the job done. (Is it ever really done, they often wonder.) As they savor each item, they are likely to get mired in the emotions, sometimes to the point of even agonizing over the decision to keep, toss, or donate. They are prone to being sentimental, which as J. D. Salinger says, is “giving a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”

Is it better to be a “keeper” or a “thrower” when it comes to downsizing?

We need both “keepers” and “throwers” to get the job done. As we say in our book, it takes a combination of these attributes to successfully downsize a family home. Sometimes that combination comes from various family members; it helps to be tolerant of attitudes different than your own, especially the attitudes of your spouse or your siblings, and to strive to find a balance between those who want to throw out everything and those who need to mull over the many decisions involved.

Successful downsizing, as we say in the book, is coming “to the realization that the most valuable thing in the house is the life that has been lived there.” That is a graceful exit.

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

“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…