As I write this, we are in the final stages of seeding the crop. As you read this, I hope you are camping with family, or relaxing after a full day of haying or spraying. The busy season on the farm gets interrupted when someone is critically ill or dies suddenly. I am not trying to be morbid, just real. In July of 2011 we took my failing father for one last tour of his shop, farm and fields for his 85th birthday. Unknown to us, he would not be here for Christmas 2012, and we as a family are going through our years of “firsts” without Dad. Mom has been gone for 14 years.
I have been sorting cherished possessions for the grandkids and siblings, and it strikes me that there are many things I am thankful that I did while my folks were still around. I am also not thrilled with some of the ways the non-titled articles were dealt with. I wish I could ask my parents to tell me about the gold cufflinks with my granddad’s initials. I never knew they existed until cleaning day came.
As the family archivist and estate stuff holder, my home has too much in it. I started giving away Mom’s jewelry to my cousins who chose pieces that they liked. They also said it was an unexpected treat to get to pick something from my mom’s box that reminded them of her kindness to them as new brides. The things that are hardest to let go of are the mementos that hold the story of a special trip. I have a paua shell in my bathroom that Dad brought home from New Zealand in the ’50s. It has more meaning to me now since I just visited New Zealand in December, after Dad died. I was also looking for a special Maori box of his, but it has been lost.
What does this mean to you?
Well, if you Google “Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate” you will find the University of Minnesota’s great resource for dealing with non-titled property.
“Who gets personal property is an issue frequently ignored until a crisis occurs. Decision-making becomes challenging when people are grieving, selling the home they grew up in, and facing the increased dependence of an elder,” says University of Minnesota Professor Marlene Stum.
Your farm shed, shop or garage might be storing some of those personal items that don’t come with a title or deed (thus they are called non-titled items) to indicate whom officially owns them. I’ve heard folks talk about buying the home place “lock, stock and barrel” only to discover that siblings have been sneaking away wagon wheels, lanterns and other antiques. Toys, tools, jewelry, musical instruments, linens, needlework, furniture, dishes, pets, collectibles, books and sporting equipment are all examples of non-titled property that can be disputed.
OK, who gets the dog?
So what do you do? Professor Stum recommends making a list of your personal property wishes:
- Share the story that goes with the item, and relay the family history. I just gave away a rusty lantern with a glass in great condition. This made a garage sale hound very happy, and I let go of it, because I did not know its history.
- Personal belongings hold sensitive feelings and memories. It is curious to me that both my son and nephew were keen to have Grandma’s candy dish. Don’t assume you know the memories attached to certain items. Ask!
- Fair is defined differently by different folks. In the TV show “Storage Wars,” the buyer gets the contents of the storage container, and hopes to find treasure. When farm families start taking things out of a family home while the owner is in a personal-care home, or antiques start disappearing from the farm shed, there is lots of fuel for conflict. Oldest son gets this, or oldest daughter gets this… is not really a workable formula for 2012. To prevent family fights, it is best to talk about what you want to do with your possessions, and make a list of who gets what and when.
- Ask each person in your family what is special to them, and ask them to explain why. The best practice is to have a family meeting and discuss what each heir is interested in and why. We did this with my father before he became ill. It was helpful to the executor to know what the other siblings were thinking and wanting.
- Make a list. With laptops, it is easy to take notes, minutes and have an emailed list to all parties for future reference. You might also want to take this one step further with the adult grandchildren. Your list of preferred destinations of possessions upon your departure from earth can be filed with your executor. I am still of the opinion that gifts given by you with a warm hand, and the story of the gift are way more meaningful than gifts given by the cold hand of the estate. Be a trendsetter in your community and start downsizing your collectibles and shed stuff while you are mentally and physically able to make a difference in how you dispose of your possessions. Put unwanted items in a consignment auction sale. Use the proceeds to celebrate a special time with your family.
- When there is conflict, use straws or draw names in order to take turns picking who gets what. One family used monopoly money to bid on items that were in dispute. I also know families who wanted very little in terms of “things” because they were rich in relationship with their parents. In that case, the local MCC thrift store got a lot of treasures to sell.
- Take digital photos of special items, and then give the items away for someone else to dust. You will still have the memory — no one can take that from you.
Disposing of the contents of the farm is a long process, so start this summer. Call the steel guy and find out what a trailer load of dead augers and cultivator shovels might be worth. Our three trailers fetched $500 each awhile back.
Think about being charitable. One family’s RV went to a camp and they received a charitable receipt.
Feed the burn pile with junk that is no one’s treasure. Ask permission to give away things after you’ve consulted with all possible owners. I am still not popular for giving away a special fishing rod without permission!
Have a spot for hazardous waste and things that need to go the refuse/landfill site, i.e. the dump! Our dump has a “free store” area where folks can scavenge for treasure. Make sure you come home from the dump with an empty pickup.
Someone once said that clutter is energy constipation. I suppose there are a few farm sheds across the Prairies that are bulging with stuff. Think of the new energy you’ll have when you walk into the old barn, shop or garage to see things tidied up, and all the treasures passed on to those who will actually appreciate their value.
Do the work of shedding your stuff. Celebrate a job well done with a day at the lake.
Happy Summer. Happy Family. Happy Memories. What a great legacy. †