Sunday, December 21, 2008


When my friend Bruce went to clear out his mother's house after she died, he found labels attached to every physical thing in the house, from furniture to trinkets in old dresser drawers. His mother had lived alone for some time and, preparing for the day when she would no longer be around, had decided to make life a little easier on her only child. The labels bore instructions about where each of her belongings should go after her passing.

Bruce's story reminded me of a time I was visiting one of my college professors. As I was leaving her house, I admired a framed, antique print of the college campus that hung in her foyer. She lifted the print off the wall and showed me how it had been passed from one professor to another, each leaving instructions on the back of the print as to who should receive it upon his or her death. Hers was only the latest among many handwritten notes on the print.

I've long thought that the approach taken by Bruce's mother and by my college professor in directing how their possessions should be disposed of shows great thoughtfulness. Their wishes upon death were made clear, avoiding any number of subsequent conflicts.

Sadly, more often than not, such desires are not made clear.

Ten years ago, for example, the mother of four sisters died. The oldest of the sisters always had thought that, as the eldest, she would be the recipient of her mother's jewelry. Upon her mother's death, however, one of her younger sisters took possession of the jewelry.

"It's mostly costume jewelry," the oldest sister adds, "having more sentimental than monetary value."

Initially the sisters could not bring themselves to discuss sharing their mother's jewelry, because it brought up too many emotions. But now my reader and her younger sisters are finally meeting to try to distribute the jewelry.

"Should the jewelry traditionally go to the eldest when there are four sisters?" my reader asks.

In this case, obviously, it didn't -- so apparently that wasn't this family's tradition. But my reader's real question is whether it's the right thing for the eldest daughter in a family to get all the jewelry.

The short answer: No. Absent legal instructions, or a note attached to the jewelry, there is no ethical reason for any one child to be favored over the others.

By not leaving instructions prior to her death, my reader's mother essentially employed a strategy used by many parents in an effort to help their children learn to get along: If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the words, "Work it out among yourselves," wafting over the four women.

The right thing for them to do now is to gather so that each can express her desires. My reader can express her view that, as the oldest daughter, she is entitled to keep the whole lot. Because her mother never expressed that desire, however, she may have a hard time convincing her sisters. A better goal would be to achieve some agreement on how the jewelry can be shared to everyone's satisfaction.

Granted, 10 years is a long time to wait to decide the right thing to do. But we can't read the minds of those who have died. Some things simply take time to work out among ourselves.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...

Hi Jeffrey

How, in your scenario, can the eldest of four sisters possibly think that taking all of the jewelry would be fair, equitable or within her mother's wishes? Doesn't she have a lifetime of experience with her sisters to know that such an unequitable split will not fly? Can't you already hear the other three crying in unison "That's not fair!"? But as you note, without mother to run to, they must now work it out between themselves.

The only theory in which the eldest daughters solution would be viable is the ancient practice of prima geniture, which sought to keep land holdings, a family farm or business from balkanizing following the death of the patriarch. One does not usually have the same concerns with costume jewelry nor is prima geniture practiced modernly in the western world.

The youngest daughter's solution of seizing the collection for herself is similarly not viable (if the jewelry has any real value, her actions would not be legal), but unlike her elder sibling who seeks that split as final, I suspect that the youngest has done so to ensure her fair share.

The most equitable solution would be the one that my fiancee's family just undertook. The jewelry was catalogued and each sister alternated in choosing a piece to remember their loved one by.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA