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How to pass along family heirlooms peacefully

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A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that boomers and seniors are becoming more interested in passing along family heirlooms and history, leaving a legacy for future generations that extends beyond money.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, it may be tempting to think “the economic downturn, steep health-care costs and longer lives may mean less money is being left to baby boomers by their parents—but boomers are unlikely to complain about that. Instead, baby boomers and elder Americans say personal keepsakes, family stories and last wishes are a far more important bequest than money.”

Citing a 2012 survey by Allianz Life Insurance that found 86% of boomers and 74% of Americans aged 72 years and older said keeping family history alive was the most important piece of their own legacies, the Wall Street Journal article also noted that family mementos and heirlooms are viewed by these groups as a key inheritance item.

But there are two problems: Families often fail to record their histories, so stories tend to die with aging relatives, and family mementos are among the most common causes of conflict after a relative dies.

"It's never about the money. It's always about the tangible personal property," says Mary Jane Olsavsky, a manager of PNC Wealth Management's Pittsburgh estate-settlement group who for almost 25 years has worked with families to distribute estates.

"Money can be divided pretty evenly, but the teacup that Grandma always used? Maybe there's only a $2 value associated with that teacup, but because of the sentimental value and the emotions around it, that causes the controversy."

Here are some tips for helping to keep your family out of conflict over the things you (and they) love:

1. Talk to your family about who will get what when the time comes, and work out the details beforehand. Then make sure all family members are aware of the choices you have made and why.

2. Have a complete estate plan that includes a memorandum handwritten by you (with guidance from your attorney) that explains the specific bequests.

3. Don’t play favorites but do give thought to who you designate to receive what – these are the things your family will most remember.

4. To pass along family history and your values, consider including a recorded audio or video you leave to your family so they not only hear your voice, but the stories behind the mementos as well as your desire for who gets what and why. This can take any form – a letter, a book, a website – and is not legally binding, but instead helps you pass on the intangibles that make each family unique.

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About the author: Bonnie Bowles, Estate Planning Attorney and Organized Mom, is the Co-Founder & Co-Owner of Wills & Wellness, a modernized law firm helping families with their very important estate planning and avoiding family disputes and drama during probate. Bonnie educates families on the pitfalls of probate and how estate planning that focuses on serving you for your lifetime can help. If you want to have an estate planning “check-in,” check out www.willsandwellness.com or call 720-266-8190 today and mention this article.

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