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Inheritance Etiquette: Talking Things Out

Manners expert Peggy Post says givers should be specific and receivers respectful

spinner image Father and son talking, Inheritance Etiquette (Image Source/Getty Images)
When it comes to inheritance, the guidelines of propriety are far from clear. "It's about being respectful," says Peggy Post.
Image Source/Getty Images

Rules of etiquette govern life events from the monumental to the mundane. But when it comes to inheritance — whether you're passing items down to family members and loved ones or you're on the receiving end — the guidelines of propriety are far from clear. How do you divvy up prized possessions between children?

How do you tactfully tell a parent that you'd like to inherit some cherished piece, or (gasp!) that you're not interested in a certain item that may be headed your way?

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Is it even possible?

"It's about being respectful," says Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, the Vermont-based business now diversified from books and columns to outreach and online. "The underpinnings of etiquette are respect, consideration and honesty, and those benchmarks all apply."

Post, 67, is great-granddaughter-in-law of etiquette queen Emily Post and the author of more than a dozen books on the topic. She talked to us about navigating the tricky waters of inheritance appropriately.

Q: There are generally accepted rules of etiquette around weddings, workplaces, even dinner parties. Why are we mostly flying blind when it comes to inheritance?

A: People are hesitant to talk about death and dying, about how to handle condolences and all the different happenings around those end-of-life rituals. Inheritance probably gets lumped into that. But there's more and more interest in elder etiquette now.

Q: The latest version of Emily Post's Etiquette includes a brand new chapter on elder etiquette. What does that entail?

A: Things like how to talk to parents about handling money, driving, living on their own as they get older. These are delicate issues. And things parents can do to prepare others — talking to children about how siblings should handle their caregiving. How do you do that to make it fair among family members? These are all very awkward topics.

Q: And inheritance falls into that category?

A: There's not a good blueprint for handling inheritance. Talking to people who deal in estate planning can give you pointers, professional and legal advice. But it does get tricky because family members forget to communicate. I think that's the big problem.

Q: You've said how awkward this issue can be. What's the best way to start the conversation?

A: Every situation is different. Do some one-on-one talks first, perhaps among siblings, or the parents with each child. But it's also good to get everyone together whenever possible, to make sure everything's out on the table and everyone is on the same wavelength. Even if families don't live close to each other, you can do a video (phone) call on FaceTime or Skype, or at the very least do a conference phone call. It's really good to talk individually and as a group.

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Q: For people who are starting to think about handing things down, is age or birth order important? Should the oldest child or grandchild have first choice, or be given the most valuable items?

A: No. That wouldn't be fair to everyone else. Now if everyone agrees to let the oldest one go first, then that's fine. But most professionals will advise to do some type of a draw. Let's say there are four siblings, they could draw names or numbers out of a hat. So the oldest might very well choose fourth.

Q: Is it OK to decline an item you've received if you know you won't use it?

A: If the person has already died, you can certainly inform others in the family that it's not something you would use and you're not interested. It's tricky when the person is still alive and wants to give you something. The answer depends upon the relationship and whether it would hurt the person's feelings.

Q: Should siblings who have shouldered more of the caregiving load expect a healthier gift?

A: It can be a factor, as long as everyone agrees. The scale might be tipped toward one person. That works as long as the others aren't resentful.

Q: What if you've been given something you won't use? Can you give it to someone else? Sell it?

A: If it's a really special family heirloom and other family members would be crushed to have that sold, then I wouldn't do that. If it's just something that you know you can't use but someone else would really like to have it — if you're not going to upset everyone else — then you can give it to that person. Some people do sell items, and that's fine if it's not going to be upsetting to the family.

Q: If you have your eye on a certain item, is it rude to ask for it?

A: Generally, you don't ask. If you're really close you may say to a parent, for example, "If nobody else wants it, or you really don't know what you want to do with that great desk, then I'd love to have it." But again, only if it's not going to seem that you're being selfish or inconsiderate of other family members.

Q: When dividing up items, how do you balance monetary versus sentimental value?

A: It is really important to try to balance out the monetary value. You want to make it fair. Get a professional appraisal of jewelry, rare books, paintings or other valuable items before you decide how to divide them. Sentimental value is a little bit harder to gauge, but I think you can even it out. Everybody has their favorite sentimental things. Maybe there's enough to go around for every person, or maybe you have a drawing for them.

Q: So for the giver, being specific about your wishes can help avoid discord among family members.

A: Leaving specific directions is a really forward-thinking thing to do, and it's great when it works out like that. Not everybody plans ahead or wants to think about that. But the fewer question marks at the end, the better for everybody.

Austin O'Connor writes on lifestyle and entertainment topics for AARP Media.

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