It’s the little things: Dealing with keepsakes

8 min read

Approaches to deciding who gets which keepsakes

  • Take turns picking mementos, from the oldest to youngest family member.

  • Use a random lottery system (e.g., drawing names from a hat).

  • Have everyone individually rank items from most to least wanted.

  • Create a point system through which each family member freely allocates a set number of points based on what items are most important to them.

  • Make sure everyone agrees fully, and keep lines of communication open to keep the peace.

When a loved one passes away, the legal system is generally most concerned with the big things, like their house and their bank accounts. But very often these are not the items that mean the most to you and your family. 

Small items, little trinkets, keepsakes, and mementos are often not specifically accounted for in wills, trusts, and other official documents. But these can be the ones that most hold special meaning or involve specific memories.  

Unsurprisingly, therefore, these pieces are often what bring up our most emotional responses, the ones that elicit stories while we happen upon them, and the ones we want to keep close to our own hearts. Sometimes we even start to imagine these items on display in our own homes as a constant reminder of the person and our relationship with them. 

While you are grieving, collecting all of your loved one’s assets can feel daunting and even meaningless. However, going through their small items and recalling the person that collected them and the life that surrounded them can make us feel close to our loved one and help us through this emotional time. 

How stuff is distributed

In general, creditors are not often concerned with assets that do not hold significant monetary value, and these smaller items will be passed down as part of your loved one’s estate. If there is a will, it may name people to receive particular items, and then instruct the rest to be divided among the beneficiaries. 

Technically, this means the executor of the estate would be responsible for selling all of the items, no matter how small, and splitting the proceeds according to the will’s instructions. However, with items of high sentimental value but little to no market worth, this is often not in anyone’s best interest. What often ends up happening in practice, therefore, is that the beneficiaries of the estate decide what to do with all of the keepsakes among themselves, under the guidance of the executor. 

It is important, though, to make sure that every beneficiary of the properties agrees to whatever decisions are made, as any deviation from the instructions of the will could potentially open you up to legal challenges down the road. As always, be sure to consult an attorney to help guide you through potential legal issues associated with this process.

Before anyone starts discussing what they want to keep, make certain that these items are not specifically designated for anyone in the will. In many states, small household goods and the like can be listed and distributed via a form called a personal property memorandum, a separate document from the will that is referenced within it. If there is no such memorandum, and specific items are not listed in the will itself, then you can start these discussions.

Whether you’re dealing with a small item like a photograph or an heirloom that holds whole family histories, determining who gets what is not always an easy process. High emotions on top of grief can further complicate these key conversations, making it even more difficult to satisfy everyone’s needs. 

There are many strategies families can use to work through the keepsakes, mementos, and other small items in a loved one’s home after a death. Like many of the aspects of grieving a loved one, honest and open communication during this period is of the utmost importance for getting through it without major rifts. 

Small items, little trinkets, keepsakes, and mementos are often not specifically accounted for in wills.

Before approaching any of the following solutions, determine who should be involved in this part of the process. It may be helpful to use the beneficiaries named in the will as a guide, but each situation is different.  Contact an attorney for help determining who can and should be a part of the process. Grandchildren, close friends, and even extended family like cousins, aunts, and uncles may have particular items that speak to them, and can be included at your discretion and as long as other beneficiaries agree. 

Once that list is made, try to come to an agreement on the actual process with everyone, so that you can avoid future disputes or potential legal issues. It may be a good idea to get those involved to agree to the process and its outcome in writing. Again, consult an attorney if need guidance on how to proceed.

Finding a solution

There are lots of ways to approach the issue of how to fairly divide items that more than one person may want to keep. Every situation is different, and what might be considered fair can change depending on the context and the issues involved. Here are some of the general ways that families have found worked for them in the past.

One simple scenario many use is to take turns claiming items. 

For example, if your loved one had three children and two grandchildren, you might decide that the oldest goes first, then the middle child, etc. until the younger grandchild—each picking one memento to keep as their own. So that the youngest members of the family do not lose out, consider using a “snake” pattern, in which the last person in the first round goes first in the second round, followed by the second-to-last person, and so on. 

If the beneficiaries can not agree on an order, a random lottery is a fair way to approach distribution. Pulling names out of a hat (whether literally or metaphorically) keeps any ideas of favoritism or unfairness to a minimum.

As a group, first decide whether the lottery means one person claims one item in the order they’re drawn, or whether it means that the first person claims everything they want first and then the second person goes in, and so on. 

Finally, you might consider using solutions that take into account how valuable each item is to each member of the family. These scenarios can be complex but can often lead to a division that feels the most fair to everyone.

It bears repeating that your love and support for each other come first, and that not everyone can have everything they want.

For example, you might create a list of every item and then have everyone rank the items from the one they want the most to the one they want the least. You can then use the rankings to determine what is fair—though this becomes difficult when multiple people rank the same item as #1. It will work best if a member of the family is excellent at math.

Alternatively, consider giving everyone a set number of points that they can allocate however they desire, based on what items are most important to them. So if there are 20 keepsakes, you could give everyone 200 points to allocate to the 20 items in any division. Someone who equally values every item would give 10 points to each, while someone who only cares about one item could allocate all 200 to that item. The person who wants each the most then becomes clear—a scenario that works well to divide things fairly, except in the case of a tie.

Keeping the peace

Whatever solution you use, make sure to keep lines of communication open and bear in mind that this is an emotional time and a sensitive area for all of you. Only proceed with the selection and division once everyone is on the same page, and if possible get them to agree to the outcome in writing.

In case of conflict, it bears repeating that your love and support for each other come first, and that not everyone can have everything they want. Reassure everyone that you all only want what is fair and honors the memory of your loved one the most, and build consensus from there.

Even if you find an initially agreeable solution, you might find that emotions come up for people as the process goes on. This is part of grieving—we often do not know what our feelings will reveal at any point during it. As always, the best way to handle these moments is to dig deep within yourself and find empathy. 

If disagreements become intractable, the executor or administrator of the estate is responsible for finding a solution that respects the instructions in the will, which may mean selling everything, even sentimental items you would have preferred to keep.

Before it gets to this point, it can be helpful to seek out an impartial party to help mediate. This removes some of the pressure for everyone involved, and hopefully can prevent long-term feelings of resentment among people who love one another. 

Remember, your loved one would never want you to have disputes over ways to keep them in your memory. Your memories of them will always be there, no matter where their stuff ends up.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.