Dealing with grandma's things
An antique snuff box collection is displayed at Silver Hill Plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina, February 17, 2012. (REUTERS/Randall Hill)
When an older relative dies, the family often finds itself with the stamp collections, Queen Anne furniture and stacks of old TV Guides that piled up over a lifetime. Collectibles can be hard to sort through in terms of both monetary and sentimental value.
Modern technology can help you create an inventory and find out what the items are worth, but deciding who gets what and how to handle the things nobody wants is a perennial problem.
When 56-year-old Margaret Miller and her siblings faced this task after her father died, they designed a way to find out who wanted -- or didn't want -- various items even before they got together.
The first job was making an inventory, which Miller started after her father was diagnosed with cancer.
"Deal with this before your parents die," says certified art appraiser Dena Crosson of Bethesda, Maryland. "Take an inventory of the objects in your parents' home. Photograph them. Measure them. Gather all that information and put it all in one place."
It is getting easier to do all this. You can download free software and apps, including What You Own, Know Your Stuff and Allstate Digital Locker, as well as Home Inventory ($3.99 for Android and $4.99 for iPhone). You can use your smartphone to photograph, make notes and store all the details.
Storing a back-up copy elsewhere, such as in Apple Inc's iCloud, would ensure access to the information wherever you might be.
Miller, who now lives in Austin, Texas, ran the meeting to divide her father's stuff. Each sibling previously had received an inventory list and put an "X" next to each item in which he or she was interested.
If no one else wanted something, the person who chose it would keep it. Items with no takers would be sold or donated.
When they got together, the siblings would resolve decisions around pieces more than one of them had wanted. They also made concessions when they realized one of them prized a particular item.
"You have to prioritize civility," Miller recalls. "I'll always remember that time as part of the grieving process. It helped us to move on -- and share memories of our dad and our memories of our grandparents."
Not every family has such a peaceful process. There is a long history of family fights over inheritances that devolve into litigation. Experts and those who have been through the process agree that planning, organization and some consideration can go a long way toward avoiding squabbles or worse.
When novelist Annie Kelleher had to deal with her grandmother's 28-room house in Ocean City, New Jersey, she used the opportunity to end a family feud.
Kelleher's grandmother and mother had been at odds with each other. The grandmother left everything to Kelleher, 53, of Canton, Connecticut.
Although sharing was against her grandmother's wishes, Kelleher spent about two years going through the 100-year-old house. She kept some items for herself; others, she shared with family, donated or got rid of.
"If I had done what my grandmother wanted, I would've perpetuated the Great War of my childhood into another generation," she says. "I offered the whole family -- including my mother, my sister, my brother and all my children -- the opportunity to take what they wanted, not only to heal the rift that existed within the family but to prevent the rift from poisoning future generations."
Since her sister collects porcelain Hummel figurines, she received her grandmother's collection. Kelleher's daughter collects blue plates, so she got the ones her grandmother had amassed.
VALUING ITEMS YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND
What if Grandpa left a table full of old cigarette lighters or his precious ships-in-bottles collection? Figuring out how to assess something you don't know much about can be tricky.
If possible, take your time when sorting the items.
"It's very emotional," says Terry Kovel, author of "Kovel's Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide." "You're not in your right mind when it comes up. The worst thing you can do is do it in a hurry."
Seek guidance, especially if some items might have value, Kovel says. Many families have sold valuable pieces of art at estate sales for a small fraction of what they were worth.
To get a sense of value, look at the numerous guides on the Internet. Kovels.com lists about 800,000 items on its free online database. Or do a bit of research just to see if you have got something special.
Remember that most prices you will see are retail, a figure you would have to discount by at least 30 percent if you plan to sell an item, Kovel says. You could also check eBay.com to see current prices of similar items or what they have fetched at auction.
Search for any backup material, including purchase receipts and brochures. Ask your relative where they bought various items and write it down.
"Provenance really helps to establish value, and it really helps tell the story of the object," Crosson says.
Once value is determined and everyone decides what they want, what's left could either be sold in bulk or donated.
Kovel advises those who want to sell the items to hire a local company that specializes in managing estate sales. While the company could end up with about 40 percent of the proceeds, she says, it will be worth it for most people, who couldn't manage the task themselves.
It is often tough to part with an inheritance, even if you don't want the stuff, Kovel says.
"Don't feel guilty," Kovel says. "It's yours. Keep something that reminds you of them. Sell the rest of it. Treat it like it's money."
(The author is a Reuters contributor. Opinions expressed are his own.)