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Who gets Mom’s ring? How to divide heirlooms while keeping the peace

To save up for your mom’s engagement ring, your father took $25 from his paycheck every Friday and handed it to the teller at the bank. You’d like to offer that meaningful ring to your son, now that he finally has a serious girlfriend—but your sister has the same idea.

What should you do when you and your sibling have an equally valid claim on that treasured object—and all the other sentimental heirlooms that tell your family’s story?

Dividing money and real estate is relatively straightforward but keepsakes can’t be carved up in quite the same way. That’s why you need a plan.

Making a list of who gets what

To avoid sibling squabbles down the road, ask your parents to spell out their wishes for who gets what objects in their estate plan. When writing a will, we tend to focus on financial assets. It’s easy to forget about the jewelry, furniture and other personal belongings that also make up an estate. Instead, your parents could create a list of all non-titled property, saying in clear terms where they want each of their assets to go—from the house right down to the dollhouse. It doesn’t have to be included in the will—that may involve attorney fees—it can be a separate document. Just be sure that everyone has access to the list, and has had a chance to review it and voice any questions or concerns. You don’t want ambiguity and confusion to be part of your family legacy.

Gather together

It might be a good idea to set up a family meeting first—maybe a Sunday dinner where you’re all gathered together already—so everyone can talk openly about how each belonging might be passed on fairly. You and your siblings might bring up items nobody else thought of as valuable. Like that garish ornament sitting on the family mantelpiece—it has a story behind it, evoking a fondly-remembered birthday party or memorable vacation. When your parents are no longer around, even kitsch keepsakes can take on outsized meaning. Objects have the power to bring the past to life. They can become priceless—to you and your siblings.

Archiving your family treasures

If you’re urging your parents to think through their treasures, it might make you start looking around your own home. Which objects tell a story about your family history? Like that sewing machine your aunt used to make your mom’s prom dress. Go through that pile of items in the attic and set aside the objects that tell a story. That monkey in a bowtie brings a moment from your own childhood to life—when you were around 6, you took it everywhere. Think of it as a museum piece, with you the curator of the family archive. Try writing down the story behind the object, and attach it to the item before archiving it. Find boxes appropriate for the treasures they contain, and label them by items—putting clothes in one and toys in another. Your children will be grateful to you in the long run if you organize and archive the family treasures.

“What words of wisdom will help your children become their best selves?”

Passing down values—not just valuables

A will lets you outline what you want your kids to have. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a similar document for expressing what you want your children to be? An “ethical will” lets you do just that. It’s an informal, non-legal document that spells out your family values, allowing you to share the virtues you learned from your own parents. When asked, “Which is the best thing men do?” the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov said, “To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.” What advice will your ethical will include? What words of wisdom will help your children become their best selves? Heirlooms aren’t the only riches we get to hand down to the next generation.

Starting the dialogue

It’s never too late to have the talk—and it’s never too early to start one with your own children. To help your parents out, suggest that they take a look at this guide.

Of course, starting conversations about family valuables and values could feel awkward—but we should all do it. Here are some tips on how to make estate planning a family affair.