What Your Loved Ones Want and Don’t Want May Surprise You!

Q. I visited my mother the other day, and we sat on the sofa in her living room with my children enjoying each other’s company. We reminisced about memories of me growing up and looked at old photo albums with the kids. In some of the pictures that were taken at my grandparents’ house, I saw paintings on the walls and a couple trinkets in the background that brought back happy memories for me. My mother has had those items in her home since my grandparents passed away.

Not long ago, my mom was thinking about her estate planning and told me she wanted to leave me all of her china, her Wedgewood collection, and her Waterford crystal. Those items are all very nice, but my home is small, and I have no place for her extensive collections. Although this is incredibly generous of my mother, all I really want are those few items that bring back memories from my grandparents’ house, a few photos and just a couple other things. How can I convey this to her without hurting her feelings or seeming ungrateful? Thanks for your help!

A. Thanks for your question. It can be challenging to tactfully convey to loved ones that we want some but not all of their items (especially items that they see as valuable), while still appearing gracious and not offending or insulting their generosity.

What you are describing reminds me of something that Matt Paxton, author of the book Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff says: “Along with your stories, your family members are going to want some of your possessions. They just might not be the ones you’d expect.”

For more than 20 years, Paxton has helped people who want to live more simply to declutter and downsize. He has had a lot of experience in this area. As a cleaner on Hoarders and host of Legacy List with Matt Paxton on PBS, he has identified many psychological roadblocks and given people the tools to part with certain items while keeping others that might hold emotional, rather than financial, value.

What to Do When You Don’t Want All of Your Parents’ Stuff

Paxton recently wrote about what to do when we want certain items but not all of our parents’ collectibles and trinkets. For many, finding out that others don’t necessarily want your cherished belongings can be a painful experience. What if you don’t want to wear your mother’s wedding dress, or you prefer to have old photos digitized rather than dozens of physical photo albums taking up space?

He suggests having an honest conversation with loved ones. Reassure your mother that it’s not that you don’t love her or appreciate her when you reject her suggested gifts. Discuss the things that you would like of hers to help remember her and your grandparents, in your particular situation. Describe the happy memories that an old painting from your grandparents bring back, and how you’d love to have that painting for your home instead of fancy china and crystal.

Paxton suggests that if you want something, simply say so. He states emphatically that loved ones shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. Describe to your parent why you want the item and the meaning it has to you. He feels that in doing so, this may be one of the most important, meaningful conversations you can have.

Advice for Parents in the Same Situation

On his PBS show, Paxton suggests that seniors catalog their belongings, locating treasured heirlooms and unexpected valuables in the attic, closet, or even under the floorboards. This will make things easier to sort and discuss with loved ones.

For a parent who wants to gift an item to a loved one, it is helpful to explain why you want that particular person to have it. Sometimes the “why” is more important than the item itself. For example, Paxton describes a Christmas ornament that one of his clients wanted to leave to her daughter. The ornament was not the daughter’s style, and she thought she would never use it. The mother tells the story of how it snowed the day her daughter was born and how whenever she looks at this particular ornament, it reminds her of that day. The story is the launchpad to a legacy and the reason the daughter decided to keep and cherish the ornament.

Paxton also discusses the value of upcycling items or giving them a second life and a new function to make them more practical, valuable, and possibly even more beautiful than they were before. He’s seen many run-down items transformed into legacy items through upcycling. For instance, Paxton had jewelry from generations past melted down and used it to make his wedding band. He felt connected to those loved ones who never had the chance to meet his wife. He also suggested using old T-shirts to make quilts that could be excellent legacy gifts for younger generations. On a personal note, I had a collection of my father’s old ties that I was never going to wear because they were out of style, but my wonderful wife, Jeannie, gave me a loving surprise many years ago by having them made into a beautiful memory quilt that hangs in our home and that I will forever cherish.

Getting Rid of Stuff

As mentioned, Paxton has spent two decades helping people get rid of stuff. According to Paxton, “(w)e buy stuff because it brings us happiness, or we think it’s gonna bring us happiness or bring someone else happiness.”  Paxton says that “real contentment comes from the time we spend with other people and the relationships we build with them.” Getting rid of stuff was the topic of his TEDxBethesda talk, where he discussed the following do’s and don’ts of purging items:

  • DON’T ask yourself whether something sparks joy. Although the Marie Kondo method does work for many, Paxton says, “it’s not quite right for people who have a bit of a hoarder inside themselves.” He points out, “The problem is “all of it sparks joy — that’s why I bought it!”
  • DON’T attempt to become a minimalist overnight. It’s tempting to think that if you got rid of all your possessions, you’d instantly transform your home into a blank slate of a space. But, according to Paxton, “that’s not realistic.”
  • DO use it, or lose it. Paxton explains, “If you actually use the item, keep it. Because if you don’t … use it, you’re gonna lose it.” He sees people lose “time, money, space, relationships and opportunities every day because they’re holding onto their stuff.”
  • DO get started. “Clean out your space in short bursts,” says Paxton. “Don’t try to do it all in one day or weekend — that’s not enough time for people who have a lot of stuff.” To begin, he says, “you can go for 10 minutes every night, five nights a week,” and he suggests focusing on a one-foot-by-one-foot area. As you progress, you can increase the time and square footage. “Be brutally honest with yourself,” advises Paxton. “If you haven’t used the object in the last year and you have no definite plans to use it again, discard it.”
  • Try to retain your humor and compassion as you clean. Rather than criticize yourself — or your partner — for keeping a pair of high-school jeans in the hopes of fitting into them, appreciate the optimism and nostalgia that led you or your partner to keep them, and then put them into a bag for the thrift store.
  • DO donate as much as you can. If you have too much stuff, it means you’re probably better off than many other people, according to Paxton. So share what you have. From his time on Hoarders, he has learned that the happiness we seek in buying and acquiring can also come from giving to others: “I promise you, every one of my clients would rather give something away than sell it for money.”
  • Old photographs are some of the hardest objects for people to cull. His rule: “If you don’t know the name of anyone in the picture, I think it’s fair to let it go.” What if you’re still left with a closet full of photo albums? Unless you plan to look through them all on a regular basis, “get a Ziploc gallon bag, and put 20 pictures in it,” says Paxton. Digitize and dispose of the rest. We cling onto photos because of the memories and stories they contain, so be sure to share the anecdotes behind the images you keep and those you digitize.

Legacy Planning for Future Generations

Just as a Living Trust and/or a Last Will and Testament allows you to leave behind the valuables you wish to leave to loved ones and those they wish to have, your Legacy Stories allow you to leave behind your personal values, especially through life’s collected photographs and videos.

Your Legacy Story Imparts Life’s Lessons

Each Legacy Story is a way to document and share (in writing or via an audio or video recording, often accompanied by a cherished photograph) your values, your spiritual beliefs, and your “life’s lessons,” and is a great way to convey these things to grandchildren when you are no longer around. Your Legacy Stories are personal statements you make about yourself and your life — your hopes, your dreams, your joys, your regrets. It may contain professions of love and forgiveness for loved ones in your life. Click here to create your own Legacy Stories at no charge using the Legacy Stories app or website.

Have You Done Your Own Planning Yet?

If you are not yet a client of our firm, it is a wise idea to do estate planning, incapacity planning, special needs planning and/or long-term care planning in advance. Please contact us anytime to set up an appointment for an initial consultation:

Legacy Planning Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Legacy Planning Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Legacy Planning Rockville: 301-519-8041
Legacy Planning DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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