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Should I sell the $15,000 tea set given to me by my 80-year-old mother?

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 7/18/2018 Quentin Fottrell

Dear Moneyist:

My parents are financially well off, and as a family we have a lot of old family heirlooms and property. I am one of three kids, the only daughter and a single mother. My mother has quietly given me some valuable jewelry, four valuable antique chairs, and my great-great grandmother’s silver set.

I am close with my brothers, but they and their wives aren’t particularly easy people to get along with. (Think: Wall Street investor versus nonprofit environmentalist.) My parents have set up trusts for their grandkids and funded college accounts, they’ve recently re-done their wills, and we all have copies of everything.

Even with all their “affairs in order,” given the shared properties and the strong personalities involved, I do anticipate some major drama in the (hopefully distant) future when my 80-year-old parents pass away.

My question is this: I recently looked online, and I believe the silver set my mother gave me to be worth $10,000 to $15,000. (I have not had it formally appraised, but it’s solid silver and there’s a lot of it.)

I am thinking of selling the silver set. I am conflicted, however, because I do think the morally correct thing to do is tell my brothers that my mom gave me the tea set several years ago and give them the possible option of buying this family heirloom if they want it.

My younger brother will be upset and tell me to leave it for the estate — he won’t be able to afford to buy it — and my older brother will be upset and tell me that it’s a family piece and I have no right to sell. He’ll want it and he will probably offer me less than what it’s worth.

I’m not even sure my brothers realize this tea set is still around. As a single parent I could use the cash.

Do I just quietly sell the silver set and hope that it is never missed? What if my mother asks about it? I know it was given to me, so it is rightfully mine but I feel like I am being dishonest not telling my brothers about it.

Morally Conflicted

P.S. I do not wish my parents dead by ANY means, but with all this recent talk of wills, lock boxes, living wills and trusts, I am having a lot of thoughts about the future. I am thinking of hiring an attorney when my parents pass, so that I don’t have to deal directly with my brothers regarding the estate. I love my brothers both dearly but they are both very difficult, stubborn, and convinced they are right all the time.

Dear Conflicted:

The person you should tell is your mother. It was her silver tea set, and she gave it to you in the hope that you would find pleasure in it. There’s only one way to find out whether she would mind your selling it. She has two other children with families, and they too might get pleasure from something that is part of your family’s history and, at the very least, knowing that it meant something more than the sum of its parts (or its price tag) to your mother.

The silver tea set belongs to you, but you will feel better if you ask your mother’s permission before selling it. Otherwise, you will be walking on silver egg shells wondering if it will ever come up in conversation. What if your mother dies and, when going through her belongings, your brothers discover that you sold the silver tea set? They might argue that you had undue influence over your mother or, worse, that you stole it.

It would also be wise to get a note from your mother or have her include a Personal Property Memorandum in her will dividing up her valuable personal items equally between her children. Some states such as Florida allow a Separate Writing, which documents tangible personal property to be distributed outside of a will. That way, there is less room for favorites and resentment when her will is going through probate.

There are many ways to split this proverbial silver tea set. Your mother could open a 529 college-savings for your child in lieu of such gifts. Gabriel Katzner of the Katzner Law Group in Encinatas, Calif. recommends an auction of heirlooms with each family member receiving a certain amount of credits: “If an item is important to someone they can bid all their credits. If less important they can bid few or no credits.”

The risk is that whoever ends up with the silver tea set may end up selling it too.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).


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