What to Do When You Want the Deceased’s Personal Effects
When a relative or close friend dies, it is common to want a memento or keepsake that belonged to them. We all have something like that cute tea set at grandma’s house that carries so many happy memories, or your best friend’s photo album from the trip you shared to Hawaii. You cherish these items, and to have them in your home will help keep your memories and love for the deceased alive.
However, it is rarely polite to step forward and make a demand for such an item—especially if there is monetary value in it. In fact, if the deceased’s estate is in probate, it may be illegal for any personal items to be disbursed until they have been priced out.
When the Family Makes an Offer
Some families prefer that the deceased’s effects go to those who want and will cherish them. (Especially as this saves them the trouble of selling and/or donating the items.) In these cases, they may offer an open house or ask you directly if there is any item that you want.
In these cases, it is perfectly acceptable to make your preferences known. The trick is to not appear greedy and to always highlight why you would like an item. Choose one or two things that carry a strong meaning for you and let the family know about it. You are much more likely to get what you want that way. It is also good to come prepared. If you want an item that will require heavy lifting and/or a truck to move it, cover all the costs and arrangements yourself.
Asking for an Item of Personal Interest
When you want an item that has little monetary value (a photo album, handmade goods, worn clothes, etc.), it is usually okay to ask the family directly. Do not make this request at the funeral or in the immediate days after death, as it is not the right time or place to start dividing the deceased’s belongings.
Instead, make an effort to reach out via email or a card in the days that follow. You can make the request in person or over the phone, but this can make the family uncomfortable if they are unprepared. By putting your request in writing, you are giving them the time and privacy to make a decision, as well as a chance to answer you in kind.
In this note, mention your sympathy and love of the deceased, and then share the memory attached with that particular item. (“That trip to Hawaii was such a special time for us, I’ll always cherish having shared it with her.”) Mention that you would like the item and would be willing to cover any shipping and/or pickup costs. Also make it clear that you perfectly understand if they would rather not part with any items at this time. Even if the family is not ready to start going through items yet, they will remember you for the future.
Asking for an Item of Monetary Value
When you want something that has actual financial value, it becomes a bit trickier. Things like furniture, vehicles, heirlooms, artwork, and even real estate can be just as memorable to you as a small memento, but you can hardly ask the family to sign over the deceased’s home just because you had so many happy times there.
This is especially true if there is a will or a large dispensation to go out to various family members. In this case, they will get the items specified in the will or may sell everything off at an estate sale and divide the proceeds this way.
Your best option is to make an offer for the item at its valued cost. Yes, you might have always been promised that tea set, but unless the deceased made actual arrangements for you to have it, you will need to work with the family. As is the case with non-valuable items, make your intentions clear in writing. Do not mention a dollar figure, but do indicate your willingness to pay what the item is worth.