Don’t expect surviving spouse to “do the right thing”

Dear Liz: My parents were married for 50 years. When my mother died, my father didn’t inherit a large monetary fortune, but he did get a houseful of family treasures (photos, knickknacks, mementos, documents) that had been cherished and saved for me and my children (I was an only child). Immediately after my mom died, my father found a lady friend and cut off all ties with me and his past. I tried but could not get through.

I know it would not have been my grandparents’ or my mother’s wishes that 150 years of family memories be lost, but unfortunately that is how it turned out. Please encourage aging parents to plan ahead for many potential outcomes so that their wishes and the wishes of past and future generations are honored. I shudder to think of what has happened to my great-grandmother’s journal that I read aloud as a child.

Answer: The German fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel resonates with many people in your situation. If you remember, in that tale a poor woodcutter acquiesces to his second wife’s demand that he abandon his children to die in the woods.

Of course, that tale ends happily. The children kill the evil witch who imprisons them. They steal her jewels and return to share the wealth with their once-again-widowed father. (Children can be remarkably forgiving.)

It’s sad that you’ve lost access to the heirlooms, but it’s much sadder that you’ve lost access to your father. If he’s still alive, though, so is the possibility of rapprochement. If you keep in touch, he may eventually thaw. If not, you’ll at least know you did all you could.

Your mother may not have been able to imagine your father cutting you off the way he has. But expecting a surviving spouse to “do the right thing” in distributing heirlooms may be expecting too much. Dementia could rob the survivor of good judgment, or he could be influenced by a subsequent relationship, as your father was.

So your point is well taken. Anyone who has heirlooms to pass along should make sure to do so — either in a will or, better yet, while still alive to enjoy the next generation’s appreciation.

Anyone who’s lost access to an heirloom should remember that while precious, it’s still a thing — and a thing that could have been lost in many other ways, from a house fire to negligence. Focusing on the loss won’t bring the thing back or restore a troubled relationship. It will just make you unhappy, and life’s too short for that.

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  1. I’ve seen this so many times because we arrange auctions and we attend auctions on a weekly basis. In addition, my dad and his brother were cheated out of money by their only cousin on their mother’s side and their young second cousin had a garage sale and sold all the family heirlooms in a weekend and we weren’t even invited to buy. I still hear about it from friends that live in that town. And don’t even get me started about my husband’s dysfunctional family and their issues after their mother died. Now their dad is dying of a horrible disease and all my kids have to say is “the sooner the better”.
    So I would suggest that if anyone wants family heirlooms like photos and papers and smaller things, start asking for them now while you are still in favor with your non demented parents, insist that your parents think about what they want done with their possessions and insist that they make a will. (I have also seen a public administrator steal so much from people in obvious ways that she went to prison!) Then make sure you make a will to protect your own children.
    Watch out for yourself in advance or just plan on buying similar antiques to what you had at someone else’s auction.