COMMENTARY 977.5: Things Are Just Things

Years ago, a listener told me her mom died leaving only a general will and a house full of personal items with sentimental and, in some cases, significant financial value. My listener said tensions were building among her and her two sisters as they approached the problem of allocating their mom’s stuff.

Each sister had different and conflicting expectations. The eldest believed her mom wanted her to have first choice of items. The middle sister was the major caregiver, and their mom had said, “I want you to have anything you want.” The youngest daughter said mom promised certain important items to her to give to the grandchildren.

None of the sisters was greedy, and no one wanted to fight over mom’s things, but emotions were strong. Each was willing to surrender her claim, but could they do so without hard feelings? Unfortunately, this situation is not uncommon.

  •  First, the daughters should talk openly and agree that their relationships with each other are worth more than belongings.
  •  Second, they should promise not to say or do anything that their mom would disapprove of or that would sully their memory of her.
  •  Third, each sister must choose to let go of her expectations and claims as if all items were destroyed in a fire.
  •  Finally, they should find creative ways to divide the property without winners or losers. They might draw lots to establish a sequence of choices. Or certain important items could rotate annually among them. If some things are too encumbered with emotional claims, they should be sold or given to someone else.

What’s vital is that everyone remember that things are just things. It’s love and memories that have real and lasting value.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 12

  1. As an attorney, I’ve often encountered probate problems. Your advice tips are very good. The Court will merely qualify the value of the Estate forcing an appraised value upon the Estate and ordering the property sold and the net proceeds divided, unless cooler heads prevail.

    As a family historian, I often urged Will Testators and beneficiaries to take steps to preserve anything of historical interest placed in an archive where the family’s memories may be kept safe for future generations. And I always add a caveat to be sure to write the names, dates and places on all photographs!

  2. Where there is a will…there are relatives… Seems we accumulate “things” the first half of our life and spend the rest of our life trying to get rid of them. A recent bout with pneumonia has convinced me that I had better shed my stuff soon (I am 73) so my wife and children won’t be burdened with them.

  3. I couldn’t agree more that character counts and the most important ‘thing’ is family and interpersonal relations. BUT, what about the family heritage, legacy, stories and “memory” contained in the things you’ve mentioned? The family members are not having their heart strings pulled because they are greedy or want stuff, they want to hang onto memories and feeling that can dissipate and that they want to teach to their children about the people, relationship and family history that has passed on before. These type of items are not just “stuff.” George Clooney in Monuments Men had the same problem in the movie; convincing the War Machine that they were not putting men in harm’s way just to save some art and stuff. They were saving Western Civilization’s heritage, history and “memory.” Putting an effort into motion to save Europe’s heritage turned the Nazi misinformation PR into help for the allies. The lesson needs to be learned at home too.

    1. A beautiful assemblage of rich ideas by Mr. Haskins. The “Legacy Story” we create through our lifetime is potentially as powerful as the Prophet’s. The conceptual opportunities are myriad; while some folks simply let their loved ones draft the chosen memories. Others will make more effort to “produce” a legacy for their children and grandchildren. Very, very interesting topic to consider; and chose carefully who carries on the traditions.

      Our eldest surviving loved one is commonly chosen; with Uncle Sam even giving a tremendous “stepped up basis” tax advantage to widows. More often, the eldest child is charged with managing and growing the affairs of the estate. Heritage, history, and memory in the “Moneuments Men”; as well as in our individual families, is exciting territory to work with. Blending the real timeline with a production of a “Legacy Project” is where our efforts lay in year 2014 !! :):)

      The purity of the love and positivity of the memories per Michael’s beautiful closing comment are TRULY the wise focus of good, strong families and even organizational entities the world over. May we all pray and prudently create healthy, rich legacies for our decendants.

    2. Mr Haskins,
      Excellent point. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint clearly, concisely, and respectfully.

      I dearly wish my sisters and brother read this and thought about it before a couple of them stole the legacy of my parents over the last 2 years.(They died 17 months apart, the last one a few months ago) I was shocked at the lengths someone would go, in order to gain material things, and secure the memories for themselves. I don’t know these people that I thought I knew. But now, they are walled up with their justification and selfish contentment, and there is nothing left to share. I cannot say working on a relationship with people who steal things, lie to their family members, and create such animosity, and chaos, is anything I would embrace. Nor are they people with whom I want to associate. That is the problem. Once others have betrayed your trust, and to such an intimate and soul deep degree, it is hard to let them in, to allow them to ever do it again.

      1. “Back in the day” when I had time to think, I came up with these thoughts, I hope they are of some comfort and perhaps edification to some one. Feel free to use or edit.
        Have Pity on the Poor People.
        Pity the poor person who must get revenge for revenge is a negative victory that does not satisfy the soul
        Pity the poor person who must criticize others for through criticism they assume perfection in themselves.
        Pity the poor person who has blinded opinions for their lack of vision imprisons them in a small cell of self delusion.
        Pity the poor person who speaks in absolutes for they trap themselves when fresh evidence is offered.
        Pity the poor person who is a slave to their own limited knowledge for knowledge untempered by wisdom is a colorless prison.
        Pity the poor person who practices prejudice for to pre-judge is to jeopardize the whole, obtainable truth concerning a person or experience.
        Pity the poor person who desires more than they can have or need for reaching beyond their ability they forever chase a dream and never arrive.
        Pity the person who pities them-self for they will have few friends of like persuasion.
        Pity the poor person who abuses power for all power must end, some times sooner, sometimes later.
        R. Wayne Edwards

      2. Sorry for your angst CatieS. But “its not over till its over” and there may appear in the future the opportunity to collaborate, support and make progress. If you can remain available and have a hopeful attitude, you’ll be ready when the door of opportunity opens. Can you open that door now by working on preserving and sharing the family history of another part of the family?

  4. I’m glad my brothers, sites and I never felt the need to fight or argue over any material possession my mother had or left behind. We lost the most valuable of all, her and everything else was meaningless.

  5. This is so true. My mother and father are both gone and my 2 sisters, 1 brother , and I have to go through her things. It is difficult to simply take her things so we let everyone know what we have taken.

    I am also planning to have my 3 sons have a frank discussion and say what they would like to have before I die so there will not be a conflict when it comes time to decide who gets what.

  6. It’s good to read this again. A valuable reminder of how to deal properly with the material things that are left once a loved one is gone.

  7. I am 55 and have been purging my stuff since 2006. I still have a bit left, but stuff are just stuff. The memories are the ones I have been preserving to include videos, photos, audio, and plain old lifetime experiences. Good luck to your effort to down size.

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