Mom’s Mother’s Day Gift to Her Children: The ‘Who Gets What’ Discussion


“When I’m gone,” said Mom about a year ago, “I want you each to have back the gifts you’ve given me over the years. I’ve marked them all with a sticker on the bottom.”

My siblings and I shot quick glances at each other; we hadn’t expected this. We had gathered at Mom’s for our annual Mother’s Day dinner, and I suddenly wished that my gift to her this year had been a vinyl Duran Duran album.

Sister Kate said what I was thinking: “But Mom, I gave you those gifts because I wanted you to have them. I don’t want them back.”

“It’s only fair that you should get back what you gave me dear, and I insist,” Mom said in her Stern Voice. I was well familiar with that voice; when we were kids proclamations in that voice were always followed by “I’m counting to three!” as if doing so could magically bend the universe to her will. 

Would your mom wanted a collectible Charles Schulz Peanut’s Mother’s Day Bell featuring Snoopy? A lot of five of these bells fetched $60 in 2010. Maybe it’s time to talk to her about downsizing the amount of collectibles she has.

I hadn’t given much thought to Mom dying, at least not in an immediate way. I suppose she was right to be thinking about how her personal possessions would be distributed after she’s gone. It’s best to have a plan in place. Cousins Ralph and Teresa nearly came to blows over a couple of Christmas tree ornaments when Aunt Judy passed away two years ago. It’s odd what family members place value on. Sometimes we get really attached to an item as we grow up. When a sibling becomes attached to the same item, deciding “who gets what” can become a difficult decision. Dividing money among heirs is easy. Dividing personal property can be a major challenge.

Mom said that it was “only fair” to give us back the gifts we had given her. But what is perceived as fair varies from one family to another. In some cultures, “fair” is passing lands and titles to the eldest son. In America, doing so would be considered grossly unfair. Fair doesn’t always mean equal. Estate administrators will be quick to point that not only does “fair” vary in meaning, so does “equal.” Does equal mean the same number of items? The same monetary worth? And how does the concept of personal value enter into a discussion of “fair?”

Mom’s idea of fair was to mark the items she wanted us to have with a sticker. The same end could be achieved by attaching a distribution list to her will. Other families I know have made distribution decisions by holding “children only” auctions using Monopoly money, in order to level the financial playing field between siblings. Other families have put all the property up for public auction, with all items going to the highest bidder. After the auction, the cash proceeds were divided equally among the siblings. There are probably as many distribution methods as there are families. Over the years I’ve heard of families that distribute according to birth order, financial need, drawing straws, rolling dice and silent auction.  

A glazed Lladró figurine “A Gift of Love, marketed as a perfect Mother’s Day gift for Mom, as the woman has a gift on her lap from her son and daughter. This piece sold for $338 in 2008. If Mom has promised her Lladró collection to you but hasn’t stated it in her will, in a state-run distribution, it will be sold through a state-appointed administrator.

What’s important isn’t the distribution method, but rather coming to a family consensus about what the distribution method will be. The time for consensus is when all family members are available to participate in the discussion. The person who will be making a distribution—in this case, Mom—should be present to make her wishes known.

If families that want to control the disposition of family property don’t act before there is a need, then the decision will be taken away from them. Property distribution for decedents who are intestate (die without a will) is taken over by the state. Each state distributes property according to their own laws, and heirs are seldom happy with the results of such distribution. Special bequests are never considered. Even if mom promised you her Lladró collection, in a state-run distribution, it will be sold through a state-appointed administrator.

On this particular Mother’s Day, I’m glad Mom opened up the topic of who-gets-what. We’re all here, and everyone seems amenable to such a discussion. In our family, allowing Mom to tell us her wishes seems only fair. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. May there be many more.

The University of Minnesota offers a workbook for families and organizations titled “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate: a Guide to Passing on Personal Possessions.” Details on how to get this workbook are available here.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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