The right way to leave a legacy

Navigate issues of inheritance and preserve precious memories

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As an estate expert specializing in personal property, I spend a lot of time helping people decide what to do with their late parents’ lifetime accumulation of stuff. In the best cases — unfortunately, fewer than 20 percent — everything goes like clockwork: Adult siblings act like adults, and even if they all wanted Mom’s sterling-silver bowl, they refuse to let it come between them. In the rest of the cases, however, I’m more like a referee in a football game that ends in a bench-clearing brawl. Not only do siblings fight over the bowl, they sometimes throw it at each other. A lot of the fighting could have been avoided if things had been put in writing ahead of time.

As children fight over what their parents did or did not mean to leave to them, grandchildren are typically an afterthought. But the bonds between grandchildren and grandparents are powerful and deserving of recognition. Grandpa really did promise the fishing pole to Tim; he simply forgot to make a plan for it.

Here’s how to make sure your grandchildren are remembered in your estate:

Have a plan

If something happened to you tomorrow, would both your son and daughter want your antique grandfather clock, and would they fight over it? If you have promised one of your grandchildren that he could have your coin collection, does anyone else know about it?

At the very least, you should have a will — more than half of all Americans have not created one — and that document should appoint someone to be the executor of your estate, usually one of your children, or someone else close to you that you trust. If you want to give specific heirlooms to your grandchildren, itemize them in your will, and make sure several people have a copy of the document so it cannot conveniently “disappear.” If you’re as loving and giving as my parents, you would also prepare a detailed file containing, among other things, account numbers, and insurance information so that no one looking at your estate has to panic and ask, “What do we do now?” or, “How do we know what things are worth?”

Mom SAID I could have that!

I hear this every day. To avoid having your kids and grandchildren fight over possessions of priceless sentimental value, leave them a map, if you will, that will walk them through your intentions. In that way, you’ll ensure that your legacy will be fulfilled and that your grandchildren will get what they are entitled to.

It helps to talk to your adult children about these questions as much as possible. If you haven’t yet started this conversation, invite them to meet with you, without their spouses, and explain to them first that you want to give them peace of mind, and so you’ve created a will that will give them all the information they could need. Then talk about your grandchildren’s needs and wishes. Ask your children to help you find ways to keep your memory alive with their children by suggesting specific items that might have special meaning to each child.

Share your stories now

The most common regret I hear is that grandchildren wished they could have known more about their grandparents’ lives and the things they left behind. Start sharing those stories now. When the kids visit you, pay attention to which objects or photos they gravitate to. Then tell them the stories behind those things — how you met your spouse; your experiences in the military; even how you got into trouble sometimes. Many grandparents also make video documentaries to record the things they want to say to their grandchildren. This can be a great gift in itself, especially for younger grandchildren.

Observe what they respond to, and keep those observations in mind as you plan your estate. Keep in mind as well that children are often unimpressed with monetary value, treasuring more the stories behind a gift, whether it’s a pocket knife, a scrapbook, or a set of old records. One teenage granddaughter I met loved hearing the story of how her grandmother met her grandfather. Today in her college dorm room sits a framed wedding photo of the late couple. That’s a legacy gift.

Here’s another way to gift some of that stuff you’ve accumulated: Create a special box and label it something like “Grandpa and Grandma’s Best Things.” Anytime you clear out a drawer or closet, set some things aside for the box. It could be an old camera or an ancient transistor radio; a skein of yarn or leftover fabric; or classic books and photos. When grandchildren visit, encourage them to choose an item from the box, and tell them a brief story about it. Like, “Remember those funny baby pictures of your mom that you love so much? I took them with that camera.” They might eventually lose the object, even if you pass it on to them someday, but they’ll always remember the story.

After all, what your grandchildren want most of all is you. As you plan ahead, make sure you leave a great big part of you with them, both objects and stories. That’s how you leave a legacy.

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Julie Hall, known as “The Estate Lady,” is a professional estate contents expert and certified property appraiser who specializes in estate liquidation, and the director of the American Society of Estate Liquidators. She is also the author of The Boomer Burden – Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff (Thomas Nelson, 2008). Learn more at