Sunday, July 29, 2012

Do heirs have the right to dictate which mementos you sell?

Last year, when gold prices reached an all-time high, a number of people scrambled through old jewelry boxes to see if they had any underused gold lying around that they could sell. At more than $1,800 an ounce, even those who weren't strapped for cash recognized a unique opportunity to do some profitable house cleaning.

A reader from North Carolina seized the moment. He hadn't worn his college ring in decades, so he decided to take it to his local jeweler to see how much it might fetch.

He was surprised to be offered $479, so he accepted a check on the spot. His wife mentioned his good fortune to their adult daughter who lives a few hours away.

"She was quite upset, tracked down the jeweler on the phone, and managed to 'save' it," my reader reports. He picked his ring up the next day, returned the check, and gave his daughter the ring the next time he saw her.

"Our daughter is just more sentimental than I am and wanted to have it to remember me by," he says. "She loves me."

A similar situation arose recently after he decided to sell a couple of handwritten letters that had been addressed to him by a well-known author to thank him for some information. Believing his letters might get lost or damaged and would not be of interest to anyone down the line, he ended up selling them to a dealer for $100.

He received "a lot of flak" from a relative who told him he should have saved the letters for his grandchildren. "He reasoned that they could be worth much more years from now and said that it was 'unimaginative' . . . and, in effect, selfish of me to sell the letters now, especially since I don't need the money."

My reader says he has acquired a lot of things over the years and doesn't want to be second-guessed on what he chooses to dispose of before his next "and probably final" move. His children and grandchildren will, he says, be rewarded with money and things of sentimental value after his death.

As he gets older, however, he wants to get rid of some things that mean little to him. He also hopes to spare his children any conflict over who gets what when the time comes.

"Should I have to consult with the parents of our grandchildren on everything?" he asks. "Is it ethical to dispose of your once-prized possessions when they might have real or sentimental value to your heirs?"

It's my reader's stuff and the right thing is for him to keep whatever he wants and dispose of whatever he doesn't. He has no ethical obligation to seek the permission of his kids, grandkids, or other relatives about what he does with his stuff.

Knowing, however, that his daughter might be sentimentally attached to some of his belongings, it would be thoughtful for him to let her and his other children know when he's getting rid of something. But such notification could be more of a courtesy than a negotiation.

Some family members may take issue with how he decides to lighten his load. They're free to express their opinion. But ultimately, as long as he is prepared to withstand some possible criticism, the decision about what to keep and what to lose is his to make.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...

Nothing more to add here, Jeffrey. They are his possessions. Let him do as he pleases. It is highly presumptuous of others to tell hime what he "should have done" knowing full well that he has already done so. Do what you please and perhaps stop telling people.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

A person's posessions are his. No dispute about that and as all agree, he can do as he chooses with them.
Two things, First is probably difficult. He should tell his family what he is going to do and give them first refusal of the items. If they think such is worth what he is offered, they get it. If not, the item goes with no regrets.
Second, how does he know what anyone wants? I just inherited 2 houses full of stuff and one relative wanted nothing and the other only one small picture. So his stash may be nothing but trash.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

Anonymous said...

I am the “North Carolina reader,” and I appreciate your comments, Alan. Frankly (not counting yard sales), this was my first foray into disposing of personal possessions, and it just never crossed my mind that anyone would care about my class ring. In retrospect, while the incident and effort involved was annoying, the fact that our daughter cared enough to go through the “rescue” process compensated a lot. I will think twice before I do that again - although there are so many things to “think twice” about.

As I told Jeffrey, “Hey! My mother threw out my comic books and baseball cards, and I found it in my heart to forgive her.”

What really frosts me is the in-law who was well-aware of my proposed author letters sale and, offering no advice, got on my case for selling them, despite rumors about the author’s plagiarism that could (as I pointed out) make his handwritten letters worthless.

Sadder but wiser?