By Clémence R. Scouten

There are many difficult questions and decisions your clients have to face when they contemplate their estate planning and engage you in this work.  Often these questions extend past legal and financial considerations. If you want to show your clients you are thinking about how to enrich an additional dimension of their legacy, you can help them answer the question “What do I want my grandchildren to know about me and my family’s history?” One way is by focusing on items we don’t traditionally regard as having tangible value: sentimental objects.

Objects of sentimental value take any size or shape. They are made of any material, from precious metals to kindergarten clay. They are acquired intentionally, they are inherited, and they are received as gifts. We all have them, on display or deep in a dusty corner of the attic. The only thing they have in common is our collective difficulty in disposing of them.

The monumental task of downsizing, or even cataloguing and valuing one’s assets, does not lend itself to carefully considering those dusty boxes, where many items of sentimental value end up. Common objects like letters, diaries, journals, old report cards and yearbooks, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, photos, children’s artwork, etc., are overwhelming to go through. It doesn’t help that many of these materials are often in various stages of decomposition, another hurdle in determining what to do.

It goes without saying that meaningful personal items which also have monetary value should be appraised and documented even when there is no intention to sell. For a refresher on the usefulness of appraisals, Amy Parenti’s guide on this subject can be accessed here. When confronted with the remainder of one’s acquisitions, the “non-valuable” sentimental items, it’s very tempting to put the job off to tomorrow. 

Overcome the Status Quo
Taking stock of what is in those dusty boxes is an important exercise with its own set of rewards. The first benefit is personal satisfaction. “I was wondering where that went,” “I had forgotten about this, I’m so happy I still have it,” and even “My son/daughter/grandchild would love to see this,” are common reactions. So is the great relief of having confronted this project. When useful materials are triaged and the superfluous is eliminated, it is much easier to decide what to do next with these materials.

Creating Value for Others
Anyone who wishes to preserve family history and pass it down to future generations should plan to think about the fate of sentimental objects. Every generation loses a connection to the past. It is likely that a son or daughter is less able to identify ancestors in old photos than his or her parents are. He or she is less able to remember the details of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives. Grandchildren are even less able. This is where the opportunity to create value lies.

Historical family materials, which often constitute the bulk of sentimental items, can be made meaningful once again.

Historical family materials, which often constitute the bulk of sentimental items, can be made meaningful once again. The process of thinking through what to define and pass on revives the original intent of the materials. Curating these items creates a cohesive, succinct collection. Thanks to easily accessible modern technology, objects can be captured via scanner or photography ensuring their long-term future. This step also eliminates the anxiety around the unintentional destruction or decomposition of items.

With objects now in electronic format, the imbalance of ownership is righted. They can be emailed or placed on a cloud server for more family members to access and enjoy. Taking it a step further, the publication of a book about the family creates the opportunity to add a narrative to accompany the images. Now, many family members can benefit from a story well-told and learn about family history in a beautiful and engaging way.

There is no reason for boxes received from family elders to go unopened, from one attic to the next, generation after generation, losing value and meaning as they go. Family members cared enough to acquire and keep certain items. You can help your clients continue that tradition by suggesting that they think about the family narrative they want to pass down. Suggesting clients engage in some form of family history work shows that you understand their decisions are based on a commitment to family, and that you can help them with a non-legal or financial component of wealth management.

About the Author
Clémence R. Scouten is the founder of Attics Anonymous, a service that helps individuals pass on what they love most about their families. Prior to that, Clémence worked as a philanthropic advisor to the founder of a regional insurance group in Boston. In that role she oversaw the management of both the corporate foundation and family foundation, in addition to staffing the principal for his extensive service on local and global non-profit boards. A native and lover of Philadelphia, Clémence has engaged in various community activities such as Judge of Elections for her division, serving on the board of the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, and volunteering at her alma mater, Penn, from which she holds a B.A. in English. Clémence also has a M.A. from the Sorbonne in Paris.

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