After Sandy Burrows's father died 10 years ago, she and her brother and sister faced a daunting task: dividing the contents of the six-room house in River Grove, Ill., where their parents had lived for almost 40 years. The siblings were determined to avoid the feuds over possessions that sometimes split families.
"All three of us got together and said, 'What are we going to do?' " recalls Ms. Burrows, of Dixon, Ill.
That question looms large for a growing number of families as older adults pare down a lifetime accumulation of belongings to move to a retirement community, or as grown children distribute possessions after a death. Finding ways to make decisions and divisions amicably requires time, diplomacy, and flexibility.
"There is no right answer, no easy catchall solution that works for everyone," says Molly Hofer, a family-life educator in Countryside, Ill., who gives seminars engagingly titled "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" But effective strategies do exist, she notes, adding, "The most important element is communication - to be open and honest with one another."
Some families draw slips of paper for each item out of a hat, says Ms. Hofer, who works for the University of Illinois Extension. In other cases, relatives state in writing why a particular object has meaning.
Burrows and her siblings began by establishing two rules. "If we gave it to our parents, it came back to us," she explains. "And if it was a possession of theirs that was directly related to one of us, it also belonged to us."
For the remaining items - furniture, jewelry, photographs - the three estimated the dollar value of each item. Then, in rotation, each one picked an object, keeping track of the cost.
"We knew we had to end up even," says Burrows. She wanted a hi-fi that resembled an old phonograph. Her sister wanted a country-style hutch. Her brother wanted their father's tools.
Donna Quinn Robbins, co-author with Sarah Morse of "Moving Mom and Dad," tells about visiting a woman who was relocating to a retirement community. When Ms. Robbins picked up an object, she noticed a name written on masking tape on the bottom. The woman's children had drawn straws to see who would get first choice, Robbins explains. "Each person in turn picked what they wanted and put their name on the bottom. That worked for them."
But labels did not work for another family of Robbins's acquaintance. The mother had designated recipients for many items. But after her death, one of her adult children changed the stickers on the bottom. Robbins says, "Most of them knew what was going to whom, so there was a huge fight."
Shannon McDonald, president of Clutter Begone! in Alexandria, Va., has observed only a few disputes. But she quotes Mark Twain as saying, "You never know anybody until you share an inheritance with them."
Call in a neutral third party
In cases where family members anticipate disagreement, Ms. McDonald suggests calling in a neutral third party. That person's role is not to make decisions but to be a catalyst for meetings or conference calls with siblings - "to find out what they agree on or disagree on."
Sometimes solutions get creative. Ruth Shapshay, president of The Next Step in Boston, tells of two brothers who were both interested in a model train their father made when they were young. After the father's death, she says, the adult sons "decided to swap it off. One would get it for five years, then the other would get it for five years."
Hofer distinguishes between dividing equally and dividing equitably. Dividing equally, she says, means giving possessions of equal emotional or financial value to various parties. One daughter might receive the china, another daughter the silver.
In an equitable division, items are not necessarily equal in value. "You may give your daughter the rocker you always used," Hofer says. "You might give your son something of higher value, but it is an equitable distribution based on need or circumstances."
Margit Novack, president of Moving Solutions in Havertown, Pa., a relocation company serving older adults, faced her own challenge 20 years ago. When her grandmother sold her eight-bedroom home and moved to an apartment, she begged her granddaughter, who was then in her 20s, to take tablecloths, china, and crystal. Ms. Novack accepted a number of offerings but declined many others. Her rejection hurt her grandmother.
Today a penitent Novack says, "I was not thinking about how it would provide comfort for her for me to take things, even if they weren't my taste. I see how much it means for older people to have things stay in the family."
Novack has seen people in their 40s and 50s arguing with their mother, saying they do not want a set of china. She tells them, "Accept it." She has had many clients "crying over the fact that their children don't want anything. It makes them feel that what they have is so worthless."
Adult children stake a claim
In other cases, adult children take an opposite approach, laying claim to special pieces that their parents still want for their new quarters in a retirement facility. "So many times kids will go in and say, 'Mom, I want this,'" explains Robbins. "The mother feels pushed, so she gives it away. But if she doesn't want to give it up, I say, 'You're giving it to yourself.' People need to be surrounded by the things that comfort them and make them feel good."
Despite such worst-case stories, specialists say, most adult children want what is right for their parents, although it might not always be easy to know what that is.
Some families - short on time, long on possessions, and perhaps scattered across the country - are turning to professional move-management services to help them pare down and distribute their belongings. Novack calls this "truly an industry in its infancy."
She and other specialists in the field urge families to talk about possessions while everyone is still living. "If there are family squabbles about who gets what, you've got a little time to work it out," says McDonald.
Yet even working it out later can be successful. Burrows and her siblings have found that their system has stood the test of time.
"We're all still happy with the results," she says. "There was no big family rift, because we all ended up with what we believed was equal. We figured we were all we had left, and we wanted to still remain close when the distribution of possessions was over. It worked."
Tips for helping parents make the move
Margit Novack, president of Moving Solutions in Havertown, Pa., offers these suggestions for adult children who are helping parents move from the family home to a retirement community:
*Try to replicate the old environment as much as possible. In the midst of change, it's comforting to have some things stay the same. Take photos of each shelf in the china closet, pictures on walls, and items on bureaus. This will help you recreate the feel of the former residence with amazing accuracy and speed.
*Let your parents' comfort guide the process. They may prefer old and worn objects to newer items that are in much better condition. Seemingly insignificant items may be loaded with personal meaning and memories, while objects of great material value may be less important. Allow them to make the decisions.
*Keep sorting sessions brief, two to three hours at most. Accept that some days you will accomplish less than you hoped. Sorting brings up lots of memories. Stories and reminiscing are natural.
*Be realistic about how much time you can devote to the moving process. Allow 40 to 60 hours for packing and unpacking and at least that much time for sorting, spread over several months, if possible.
*Accept parents' gifts graciously. Even if there are items you may not want, take them anyway. Store the items in your basement if you must. Knowing that cherished objects are with family can bring comfort and peace of mind to your parents.
*Concentrate on the big picture. Keep three objectives equally in mind: caring for your parents, taking care of yourself, and keeping the family intact.