Moral question - priceless family heirlooms vs. garage sale

bobbedybobApril 4, 2010


We're three siblings, me, a brother and a sister. Mom is 80 and has Alzheimers' and recently moved into a assisted living facility, where she has her own furniture and can keep her own stuff. She is content with what she has there with her.

My brother got power of attorney for her (don't know if durable; we dont talk a lot but are slowly improving communications due to Moms condition; I am thankful he stepped up in regards to Mom though).

She loved to collect china, porcellain dolls and jewelry and most of it she left behind in her house. Mom has a buyer for her house and it'll be sold soon for a good price. It also has to be emptied out soon, which is our job to do. My brother handles the sale now, since Mom can barely remember what she did 10 minutes ago. Her Alzheimers progressed rapidly in the last few weeks.

She has a very good chunk of money in savings, so that's all good for her future ahead. Perhaps she will not need Medicaid at all, and the money will outlast her.

Here is the problem:

my sister found out that my brother took a desk for his son who's in college from Moms house after Mom moved out of her house. My sister is furious and says that absolute nothing should be taken from the house by the family, but an appraiser should come in to assess everything in order for an estate sale to happen (in order to empty the house to sell it).

My opinion is that I don't think it is worthwhile to pay an appraiser and do an estate sale, but a garage sale would do. Her furnishings and stuff really isn't anything fancy, most aquired at garage sales and in thrift stores. You would never believe that she has a hefty bank account, if you would see what a simple, ordinary house she has. But then, the humble life made that hefty bank account possible, no question.

My brother says that a garage sale would do, too, after he would research the value of some of her stuff on ebay etc, namely her china, jewelry and the doll collections. Before a garage sale, we and all our kids (Moms grandkids) should have a chance to pick stuff out to keep, he says. I don't know if he meant the grandkids should pay garage-sale-price for the picked-out stuff or not. But either way, free or paying for it, it would be okay with me.

I have no interest in any family heirlooms from her house. The only inheritance (later on) I am interested in are part of the family photos, which are with Mom at her facility and there they are in a safe place until she dies. Theres absolutely no rush in receiving them, in my opinion.

I agree with my brother in the bigger picture: its nice to have something that reminds us of her, since we want to empty the house before it is being sold.... yet morally (and legally I think) I tend to think that all proceeds from all her liquidated estate should go to Mom in a fund for her, since SHE IS STILL ALIVE. Yeah, the fund might still be here when she isn't here anymore... but isn't that legally in her best interest?

Mom might live another 10 or 15 years; she is physically in excellent health; its the Alzheimers' that got her.

Now, honestly, all the valuables add up to perhaps a couple or three grands.... to be fair, that's not even half of her months' rent at her facility. -- Those same valuables or family heirlooms, are priceless, on the other hand. I get that.

Her money for affording to live in a facility will come out of her savings and out of the sale price from her house. In comparison, the proceeds from her furnishings/stuff/family heirlooms seems like a drop in the ocean to me, so in a way the choice to simply give away the priceless family heirlooms to family members seems logical. Yet.......

None of us siblings is interested in putting her furniture and stuff in a storage unit... that would just drag things out. As I said, Mom could live another 10 years. Something has to be done now and soon before the house gets sold, but what???

Some of the adult grandkids, namely mine and my sisters are making noise that one of the grandkids got that desk, but they didn't get anything. Why weren't they invited to the house to choose something, if that one cousin got a desk?

This ol' desk, worth perhaps $10 in a garage sale, rubbs the grandkids the wrong way.

Its the principle, they say. We should get something NOW, before someone sells it off.

I have no idea what to think. I understand that the adult grandkids want some family heirlooms from Grandma, yet Grandma is still alive!

At this point, I think, no one trusts anyone here and if one of us siblings would want to safe-keep some of moms collections (as I said, put them in a storage unit or in a box in the basement or a bank deposit box), someone else would accuse him or her of taking something.

We siblings MIGHT get into an agreement, which would probably be my sisters preference: an appraiser and an estate sale (with the money put in Moms fund), but what do I tell my kids then? They will raise hell that they didn't get this doll or that plate or the other special-to-them wall clock for free from Grandma.

It is as if the Grandkids (unfortunately even including my own kids) take inheritance two generation down for granted these days even before the person dies!

(On the other hand I might sound ungrateful and unappreciative because I am willing to sell off family heirlooms so Mom gets 2K in her fund.

I am tired and disappointed in my family that they are arguing about these things and filling up their minds with these material things... yet most of them are to busy to come visit their Grandma and just BE with her.

I heard about families who get in fights over the inheritance, but I didn't think families would argue about "stuff" long BEFORE the person dies.

So, basically, my question is this:

what DO you do with such valuables/furnishings when there are more siblings and/or interested parties that can't agree on what to do with them, and Mom isn't capable of deciding herself?

Who is right? The grandkids who want a dispersement of the family heirlooms already?

Or my sister who wants to keep everything in the house until an appraiser comes and then the stuff is sold for MAYBE a couple of grands? In this case, since there is not much valuables, I believe the appraiser would profit the most from the whole thing and nobody would get any priceless heirlooms, except by bidding on it; yet most of the grandkids have barely any money themselves, so chances are small that they would get something thats priceless yet valuable, as they all hope.

My brother tries to do the right "family thing" and disperse some things among the grandkids. He got a bit ahead of himself and gave his own kid the first choice in picking.... oh well. Shouldn't have.

Legally I think, my sister is right, but because of the minimal value of the stuff an appraiser and a big estate sale dont make much sense.

Mom was very attached to her things and I THINK if she would have a clear mind and could decide what to do with her stuff, she would much rather see it go to her family and to those who appreciate her stuff than to be sold at a garage sale or estate sale.

I am torn on how to advise both of my brother and sister.

Please tell me your honest opinion. Maybe I got it all wrong.


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"My brother got power of attorney..."

If this is only medical power, disregard the following.

Assuming this is general/durable power of attorney, your problems are over because its all on your brother's shoulders. He would be thus empowered to act on her behalf. However the "on her behalf" part can be subject to challenge if someone thinks he's rather doing things for his own benefit instead. With a total value of goods described as a few thousand dollars, nobody with brain is going to mount any legal challenge, so your problem is likely limited to family discord....which his taking of the desk obviously has triggered.

Also, given the "few thousand" value, I wouldn't recommend any kind of sale. There's not enough cash recovery available to get excited. If your brother's determination is that the items need to go so the house can be sold, I'd suggest allowing the various members to have whatever keepsakes they may want, then sell the rest. Your brother will still have decisions to make about items more than one person may want, but that's his problem/duty. From your description, there's no way everybody's going to be happy -- they almost never are. Hopefully they may be respectful and gracious concerning his decisions.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 11:29AM
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As far as I can tell, he has power of attorney over her checkbook too.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 4:06PM
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By all means, let each of the grandchildren take something from their grandmother's house. If her belongings don't have a huge value, what would a couple of hundred dollars difference make. I might even give them several pieces, so that their children could have something from their great grandmother -- even if they aren't born yet!!!

I would even consider having some sort of expert looking at her belongings. My good friend's mother had a doll collection that turned out to be worth $20,000+. Everyone was staggered by that amount. E-bay is a good place to start.

My mother is in a nursing home. Most of her things were given to the grandchildren, or sold off. It didn't amount to much money, either way.

Now, I don't want to think about what happens when my MIL dies. She has lovely things, but mostly, all of her children and grandchildren would want the things because they were her things. She is a lovely woman, and I can see that having somethings from her would be important to the grandchildren -- I know my children would like a few tokens.

I would suggest that any gift given to you mother go back to the giver, if it is something easily identified as such. I know that we have given my MIL some lovely things that had a lot of thought put into their purchase. I would love to have them back to pass to our children and grandchildren.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 8:17PM
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First lesson - talk to your siblings! Everybody's got different ideas and you can show your kids that yeah, their parents actually can act like adults and compromise for the good of Grandma. Because, really, this is about HER, not about anybody else.

My oldest sister died and although it wasn't a large estate, some feelings definitely got hurt amongst family members because we didn't have the courage to actually talk to one another during what was a stressful time. Big mistake that I hope you will not repeat.

The grandkids are not entitled to anything, really. Grandma's finances seem okay but there's no guarantee, is there? Even a couple of thousand $$ might be important, you just never know.

A used desk, as you rightly pointed out, isn't worth much. Suggest that you and your sister can take ONE item each, worth no more than $50, for someone who might need said item.

Then it should be hands-off until she dies. Separate the heirlooms, documented by your brother with photographs, appraisal worth, and location - it's fine for a family member to store them, but if possession wants to turn into ownership someday, that item's value will be deducted from their share of the estate when Grandma dies. Every 5 yrs the pieces should be re-appraised for valuation purposes. Loss or damage again is deducted from the heir's portion.

The remainder can be sold via garage sale or through one of companies that professionally handles these types of sales. We used a pro, it's amazing how even the junkiest items were worth a couple of dollars to some bargain hunter.

Take out the emotion and handle this as what it is - a business affair. Family business, but still business.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 4:34PM
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"As far as I can tell, he has power of attorney over her checkbook too."

This is likely "durable general power of attorney" and is quite common. It allows another designated person to handle the incompetent persons affairs on their behalf.

Suggest doing a google search using those words in order to learn about it. The assumption of the document is that the person given the power will act in the maker's interest to the best of their ability as the person would if they were competent to do so. The power ends at death. Thereafter, the executor or "personal representative" named in the will takes over.

I suspect if he has that power he also likely has medical power. It would be well for other family members to know these things so everyone understands who's in charge. Given the controversy you've already described, the knowledge would likely settle things down a bit. I would encourage your brother to disclose the state of affairs to everyone early rather than springing it on them during some incident or argument.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2010 at 4:21PM
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Here's a suggestion: put a price tag on everything. You're going to to do this if you have a garage sale anyway, right? Look up on e-bay or Craig's List the typical value of the items, and try to assign a fair price to everything. For the more valuable items, take your sister's wishes into account and have them appraised by a neutral third party. Then give each family member some amount of money, say $500. This isn't real money, it's a credit. Everyone can use their credit to "buy" the items they want from the house.

If more than one person wants to buy the same item, perhaps your brother will need to step in to make the decision on who gets it.

Your nephew who got the desk starts with $10 subtracted from his credit.

If one family member doesn't want to "buy" anything, then give that person his or her share of the credit from the proceeds of the garage/estate sale.

Will that work for your family?

    Bookmark   April 10, 2010 at 1:51AM
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My sister's daughter was picking out what she wanted while my Mom lay dying just 6 ft from her. Grand kids should not even be considered in this. Personally I think if you let anyone pick anything you are going to have a war on your hands. Look at what happened when the son took a $10 desk for his son. You should try and settle this with your siblings, if they can in someone that does estate sales and sell it all. Be very careful selling the doll collection, do not sell them to the person that appraises them. I had 850 dolls and the most valuable ones were the hard plastic ones from the 40's and 50's, not the porcelain ones. I sold some outfits for those hard plastic dolls for as much as $500 each.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2010 at 11:44PM
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For years I worked for an auctioneer. Complete estates would be put into the auction and family members would bid for the items they wanted (sometimes against family) and the items they didn't want would go for fair value. The proceeds of the sale would be divided up amongst the heirs and each would pay for their items out of the proceeds. I never saw a family that didn't see this as a fair and equitable way to divide up the estate.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2010 at 8:10AM
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"Now, honestly, all the valuables add up to perhaps a couple or three grand...."

As an auctioneer, would you even show up for your percentage of that value? Otherwise, agree with the concept.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2010 at 9:58AM
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In my area all the auctioneers work on consignments in their own barn. People bring in lots that are worth $100 on up. We can have as many as 20-30 different lots in an evening and everything sells from household goods to antiques and heirlooms.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2010 at 8:22AM
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I would not do an auction, an estate sale would be better. People will see a sale sign going to the grocery store and may never read about the auction notice in the newspaper.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2010 at 11:00PM
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I agree that jewelry, doll and china collection must be looked at by a professional. You never know, after watching those "Antique Road Shows", what treasures you might find - just because they dont make things anymore like they used to. IF they are worth good chunk, sell it and put the money into her funds. You never know what disaster will strike and what SHE will need. Money is like water, and She is still alive. You all have your own families and houses to take care of.

Dont waste her money on storage. Sell it now and then sell the house.
I also agree that if anyone has any sentimental feeling or wants to have something from her things, let them take and keep - years later you will regret just selling it to strangers. Just apply the same rules to all - either all take 1-2 items for free as memory, or all pay fare value. My husband's grandpa just gifted me his mother's (great grandma for my husband) chain watch, it was all broken, not working, I spent $80 to repair it, and it is worth maybe $80-100. BUT it has her name and date that it was gifted, etc. so it is a part of family history and I am the only female in the family who is interested in keeping it.

Re the family issue - I do agree that you as parents need to set example to your kids - get them out of the picture and discussion until three siblings agree on what to do, and clarify what legal role your brother plays. What a shame that they dont go to see grandma but got their eyes set on the STUFF. And please, if all argument is about $10 desk, have the kid pay for it. Teach them to earn things just like grandma did. Teach them lessons now, even though it maybe too late if they are grown up as you describe them.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2010 at 5:36PM
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