Reducing the potential for drama

April 20, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 9
Peter Dryden |

There was an interesting scene on a recent courtroom drama in which a dying, wealthy woman had taken the time to place sticky notes on precious items around her home to indicate to whom the items should go after she died. Unfortunately, the woman passed away during the night. By morning, all of her carefully placed sticky notes had fallen to the floor. Oops!

A forensic investigation attempted to piece together the intent of the deceased by trying to match the unique particles found on the sticky notes. As you can imagine, the conflict increased when investigators discovered that the most valuable item was to go to the maid.

While this makes for great television drama, in reality it causes chaos. Have you ever had to deal with a family heirloom? Perhaps you’ve served as an executor and had to give away someone’s valuables. It’s not a task for the faint of heart. But putting together a good plan to manage our personal effects after we are gone demonstrates our love for those we leave behind.

My grandmother, who was an avid rock collector, somehow acquired a unique table. She was proud of this table that contained rocks from all over Canada, encased in glass. When my grandparents started the conversation with their adult children about receiving their possessions, my grandfather was prepared for a battle over their infamous “rock table.” My grandparents were confused when they realized no one wanted the table.  

This isn’t uncommon, in my experience. I have many conversations with families about estate planning, and when it comes to heirlooms and items, the theme I most often encounter is that the kids are not interested in the china collection. In some cases, families feel quite burdened with heirlooms from an estate.

If we’re not careful about putting a plan together for any highly coveted items and heirlooms, however, it can lead to some very challenging dilemmas for the family, and can even damage relationships. Should a battle arise over our stuff, it can become quite costly to everyone involved. One person explained it this way: We might as well just randomly pick two lawyers whom we don’t know and leave our entire estate to them! So, by taking the time to clarify our intentions while we’re still able to answer questions about our estate plan and any contentious items, we can avoid any potential battles and costs over heirlooms.

Giving away items while you are still around to see the recipients enjoy the gifts can be quite rewarding, not to mention that it can save your executor a lot of work managing your personal items after you are gone. To honour their loved ones, some families deal with heirlooms by selling the items and donating the proceeds to the favourite charities of their loved ones.

Whether you are managing the distribution of heirlooms and personal effects, property and finance, or gifts to charity from your estate, ensure that everyone understands the process.

Do you have a plan for your estate? Perhaps it’s time to have the conversation and learn what your children would, or perhaps wouldn’t, like to inherit. Is a gift to charity from your estate a consideration? Certainly every family’s situation is unique, and so is our approach to each Mennonite Foundation of Canada client. Let us help you create your estate plan.

Peter Dryden is a stewardship consultant at Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC) serving generous people in Alberta. For more information on impulsive generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit

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