Unwanted Inheritance

Archived Q&A and Reviews


We don't want to inherit our parents' collections

July 2010

My parents are getting on and they want the three of us children to decide which of their things we want before they go so that there are no problems, which I appreciate.

My mother in particular has amassed an amazing collection of southwest rugs, pots, sculptures, baskets and other artifacts in her 50+ years of collecting (no, you can't have any). She works in museums doing restoration work and has a Master's in textiles, so she knows her stuff and knows how to take care of it. Add the fact that my father really knows where to look (his father brought him along while he built the bridges on Route 66 (yes, very widely spaced generations)).

It really is truly amazing, valuable stuff. She's modest, but I suspect taking it onto ''Antiques Roadshow'' might be epic. But we don't really want or need more than a token amount of it as it doesn't fit our taste. To be honest, I don't think it fits either of my sibling's taste either (one is into Frank Lloyd Wright, the other surburban chic).

I don't wish to feel like I'm snubbing her, but I don't want to take things only to hide them away or immediately put them on the auction block. Advice? Son

If these ''artifacts'' are as rare and valuable as you describe, approach a museum with them. Valuable cultural heritage shouldn't be stashed away or sold at an auction. It should be shared with the public for research, education, and aesthetic enjoyment! Your parents may actually really like the idea of donating a much-loved collection to a museum. Show off those rugs and pots!

I think a sensitive and honest conversation would be best, either first between your siblings and yourself and then your parents, or just with your parents. You could ask what is most important to them -- that you and your siblings receive some financial benefit from your inheritance of their collection, or that the pieces should be appreciated and handled appropriately, or that you should have a share of the collection as a remembrance of them? You could do a mixture of getting financial benefit and saving a couple of things to remember them by, and that seems very reasonable. Of course you realize (as your posting conveys) that they have exhibited excellent judgment and taste in gathering their collection, but it is not your taste. You would love to have something that would be a cherished reminder of your parents, but aside from that, you are not interested in holding on to the collection, so you would like to know what museum would benefit from the donation, and/or you would like to know if it is OK to sell the greater part of the collection. They should understand, as long as you show your appreciation for their skill in creating the collection. southwestern art lover

Perhaps you could say that you are not particularly attached to individual items, but would like her to pick a few representative pieces for you, since you associate them with her so strongly, or you could just pick a couple of items that you would like. I would expect that you and your siblings would each pick a handful of items that you want to keep, and then you can have the rest appraised and divide the assets when the time comes. If one sibling wants a large number of valuable items, your mother can arrange to subtract the approx. worth of the items you've each chosen from the remaining divided assets, so the division of the estate is fair (if she plans to divide assets equally). I think this is a pretty common situation and I doubt your mother expects you to literally divide up her entire collection. I'm sure she's noticed that you and your siblings do not share her interest in Southwestern art. One other option that your family might consider is donating part or all of the collection to a museum in your parents' name.

I've been in the situation of dividing property among family a couple of times after a death, and I must admit that it can be tricky, even among reasonable and thoughtful people, but I'm not sure that doing it ahead of time really helps, although it is very kind of your mother to try! I would definitely recommend making it clear that you plan to treasure the few items you keep and pass them on to your own children, if you have them, and I will add my voice of experience to say that I have often wished I took more to have those items to pass on to my own children, so I'd err on the side of asking for a little more than you think you want and realize you can change your mind later. Within reason, of course, lest your closets be bursting with unwanted emotionally-laden objects. -Hoping no one's feelings get hurt

My advice for your situation: Rent a storage space, accept whatever your parents want to give you. When they die, sell the stuff.

I know it all sounds simple. But that's what I would do. Sounds like their stuff is too valuable to pass up. If you don't like it and don't want it, you can always do something with the VALUE that they represent. If you transfer them into MONEY, you can do something with the MONEY and transform it into something that YOU want.

I think you won't hurt your parents' feelings if you explain that you are keeping their stuff safe in the rental unit. You just don't have space for them in your living space right now. Hope this helps. burk

Tell her and encourage her to begin selling it or giving it away to other family members or the interested public. Maya

I suggest you make it a family project of creating one or several photo books of her collection. You can take digital pictures, upload them, and make books at many sites, including shutterly, snapfish, Kodak gallery, etc. I am guessing that she would enjoy the project and then after you have all admired the books and put them on your bookshelves, you can take the artifacts to Harvey Clars and feel good about passing them on to someone who will really appreciate them. Sanon

If they were my parents' things, I would either loan or donate the group to a museum (maybe reserving a few pieces as keepsake). The process of choosing a museum could be lots of fun. There might even be a way to include your parents and give tangible respect to their expertise. Good luck! anon

Make mom happy and take a bunch of things. Display some in one room in your house (store the rest) - tell her you'll alternate them for display (and maybe you will, doesn't have to be a lie) and sell all of it after she dies. Your mom is proud of her collection, please honor that and don't let her down. How many times did she have to hold her breath/bite her tongue when she disagreed with your taste or your decisions while you were growing up? Payback time! 48 year old mom

What about helping your parents donate their lovely and valuable items to a local museum or university? The pieces might be more important as an intact collection, your parents' memories will be honored, and none of you have to take the stuff! As a bonus there might also be a tax deduction. Good luck! Anon

This seems kind of obvious, but why not suggest that she leave her collection to one of the museums she has worked with? She may have even had that in mind when she asked you to pick what you might want. Anon

Your post explains the whole situation really clearly and in a very nice way. Why not just say the same thing to your mother? Maybe she will want to will the stuff away to someone who would appreciate it more if you don't want it. Donate it to a museum, for example.

Of course if you hope to eventually get the value of the stuff by selling it, that won't work, but overall I think just being honest is the best policy.

I would also consider taking some of it and storing it for a while; you might have your tastes change in later years and really wish you had kept some of her beautiful pieces. Good luck and long life to your parents

I suggest you encourage your mom donate the collection to a museum that will really appreciate what she's so thoughtfully assembled. Your folks can enjoy it while they're alive, the estate earns a substantial tax benefit, and you can honor your mother's expertise without being saddled with things that don't suit your taste. Seems like a win-win to me! Good luck. Been there, done that

Are you sure that you won't look back and wish for the rugs and pots later? I know that my taste change, and I wish for things that I didn't take from my Grandmother's estate. Also are there any grand kids that might want some of the stuff later? I say this, because if there is any way to safely store this, I would keep it. It might be worth 100k, now, but in years, it might be worth 2-300k. I think because it is so valuable, you and your siblings should come up with a plan. It might be equitable, or it might not, but make sure the three of you agree on it. For example, you might each take what you want, and then donate the rest to a museum. How to deal with it not to hurt your mother's feelings? You can take it all and then donate it later. You can be honest with your mother and tell her how much you appreciate it, but it's not to your taste. You know your mother well enough to know which strategy would work better. It's good to think about these things now

for - ''Don't want to inherit my parents things'' - I would be interested in how you handle this situation. My mother also has a lot of ''stuff''. Some of it valuble. I have asked her to put stickers on the backs of some things with their appraised value so that if something happens we have an idea of what is is worth. (So that it doesn't get sold for ten cents in a garage sale) I have tried to suggest to her that she will have to sell a couple of rooms of furniture as she is going to have to sell her large house and move into something smaller with a more manageble yard, but she always opposes that idea. (She has 2 baby grand pianos in her living room in Tulsa). My brother,sister and I do not want to inherit all of this ''stuff'' and have to deal with getting rid of it. I would be very interested in hearing how other's have handled the impending promise of inheriting ''stuff'' we have no room for. overstuffed

I would be honest and ask your mom to help you pick a few select items that are either valuable or meaningful, then work with your mom to begin selling or donating the other items. If I were your mom, I would get a kick out of seeing some items go to museums or seeing some items sell on the auction block. Fellow child of a collector

You might suggest to your Mom that since she has amassed such a collection, that she will the art objects to a museum, or donate them to a worthy charity of her choosing, that could sell them to support itself. Just a thought... Suggest she donate it!

I was unclear whether she was distributing her things now or just deciding where they will go when she dies. The basket collection seems museum worthy and probably could be sold at auction or donated to an appropriate museum. I remember that UC Berkeley has a fantastic collection and then there are smaller museums like the Oakland Museum. You might try contacting the Heard museum in Phoenix which is extraordinary and a wonderful place to visit for any one of Native American background or having interest in same.

My father collected George Stirling books (local author) and very much enjoyed collecting them. He donated his collection to the Oakland Library (or was it Berkeley?) anyway I would discuss the possibility of donation or auction with your Mom. If the collection is that nice it would be more equitable to distribute the proceeds to family members or to donate so all family members could appreciate. If that isn't a possibility I would express interest in the collection and then donate in her name after she is gone. I donated many things to appropriate places when my parents died. It seemed the best way to pass on their legacy. William Morris said, ''Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.'' Good luck! Kwheat

It sounds like you're worried about hurting their feelings.

Unless you or your siblings have made promises along the way to secure or take care of your parents belongings when they die, then I suggest you just say partially what you've already said: open to picking a momento.

Your parents are wise to start minimizing their belongings or else this does get left to the kids. They now have control over what person or organization gets what. It can feel like a burden for some people and they may need help to ''part'' with these objects which may have many memories connected to them.

I'd thank them for offering you all the first choice, then ask them if they've had some ideas over the years of how they'd like their collection to be distributed or if they had a plan. Ask them how they feel about parting w/ their collection. They may feel burdened and/or rushed to minimize or overwhelmed w/ the job of it all. If they've had no plan, then maybe one of you can offer to do some research and come up w/ some ideas. Certainly, selling items is obvious option. Good Luck. Monica