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Divide the heirlooms, not the family. If there’s not a will, there still might be a way
Family quarrels are bitter things,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in Babylon Revisited. “They don’t go according to any rules.” Nowhere is this more true than in the division of heirlooms following a death. Items with a clear monetary value, like the house, the contents of bank accounts and investment portfolios are easy to split, but it’s the personal possessions and sentimental mementoes that end up causing rows. Whether it’s a final, tenuous link to the fond memory of a parent or a piece of familial history, handed down for generations, vying for a bequest is an intrinsically emotional experience.
A delicate, antique china tea set has become one of Susan Brodigan’s most treasured possessions. “I have three sisters, and a mother who loves china,” she explains. “The many tea sets at home have come from a variety of places; some were my parents’ wedding presents, and some were inherited from other family members who have passed away. We have all picked a set as our ‘inheritance china’, and they have been boxed up and stowed away. Mine came from my great uncle. It’s short a cup and I’ve spent far too many hours online trying to find a replacement – but it dates from about 1945 so I’m not having much luck.”
Úna Morrison was lucky enough to inherit her beloved grandma’s writing box when she was 32. “My mom and aunt were undecided as to who should get what and I was the lucky one,” she says. “I think it was because I like to send letters and cards, so they thought it would be appropriate. I love it; every time I open it I think of my grandma. She always signed her cards ‘grá mór’ and she was full of love, particularly for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. I can’t imagine it leaving the family.”
But not all family heirlooms are acquired so painlessly. Even when a will is present, the deceased’s estate, and its numerous personal effects, are often directed to be split evenly between its heirs. Sounds easy in theory, but the reality can turn a once harmonious family into a group of grappling opponents. What should be a time to grieve and heal becomes fraught with entitlement, anger and greed.
The true story of Mourne Park House and the bickering family of aristocrats who lived there had all the ingredients of a gripping Sunday night television drama: a bitter feud, a cherished collection of family relics and one determined heiress. Located halfway between Dublin and Belfast, in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, the remains of Mourne Park sit behind an imposing twelve-foot granite wall. Once the seat of the Earl of Kilmorey, over the years the 900-acre estate, the playground of Ulster society, played host to guests from the late Queen Mother to playboy actor Errol Flynn, who was a regular visitor. Today, after being partially gutted by a fire in 2013, what’s left of the house is for sale.
This story appears in the April issue of The Gloss.