Protecting Family Heirlooms—The Why and How

Living & Spending, Planning & Saving
on May 2, 2014

Paula Vergara is a lifestyle writer based in Boston, Mass., specializing in finance, food and sports. Here, Vergara shares tips for protecting personal property—now, and for generations to come.

When I was a kid, my mother went to great lengths to keep the family finances private. Certain drawers were off-limits, and there was a mysterious, locked box located at a bank, with contents unknown (to me, at least). And like most kids, I didn’t pay much attention. Fast forward 25 years, and I found myself helping my mother to unlock her safe deposit box. At 78, she wasn’t getting any younger, and she hadn’t opened this box in decades. It was time for another look.

Convincing my mother to take this emotional step wasn’t easy. I had to talk her into opening a box filled with memories from her deceased parents, siblings, grandparents and, most importantly, my Dad. Once she reluctantly agreed, I thought it would be as simple as going to the bank and opening a box. Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate the safe deposit box key. Big problem.

Due to security reasons, my mother’s bank did not have a “master key” to access my mother’s safe deposit box. Without a key, the box would have to be drilled open, and the contents relocated to new box. Losing your safe deposit box key is not cheap—it will cost you $150-$300 for a new box rental.

As we sat in the private viewing area of the bank, I watched, as my mom wiped away a few tears. While she reminisced, I took out my digital camera and began taking photos of each item in the safe deposit box. I asked my mom if she could describe the items and each one’s original owner, for the purpose of having a documented history—not just for my own benefit, but for my siblings and for future generations.

Later in the day, I created a digital file of the items (in MS Word) with color photos, brief descriptions and, most importantly, a space to write names of beneficiaries. My mother had not yet decided who would inherit the items in her safe deposit box, so this would serve as her beneficiary list. I later discovered that this type of document could be printed and added to a pre-existing will, leaving no stone unturned concerning final wishes.

If you choose to go this route, you and your surviving parent can set up a time to meet with an estate planning lawyer (preferably the same one who put together your parent’s will), and present him/her with this list. Make sure that the document is signed and dated by your surviving parent prior to the meeting, and make multiple color copies. (Never assume that a lawyer has a color copy machine.) The original goes with the will, one copy goes to you, and one to your parent(s).

Despite the difficulties—emotional and otherwise—involved in taking this step, knowing that my family’s heirlooms are secure, accessible and prepared to be passed to the intended beneficiaries has afforded peace of mind.

Interested in more personal accounts like this one? You might also like… My Individual Stock Market Tutorial,  How I Learned to Live in Luxury—For Less

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