The best heirlooms are things that commemorate significant events and rites of passage. A signet ring passed from father to child to mark a 21st birthday; a christening gown that’s been in the family for generations; your grandfather’s fob watch…
But it’s also about the stories that go with the objects, so make sure you talk about how you came by the possessions that matter to you most – when you’re gone, it’s your stories that will live on through the pieces you leave behind.
How to start a family heirloom
You can’t simply buy an heirloom, you create one by building a story around an object of personal meaning. For something to become an heirloom, financial value matters less than the sentimental value of a much cherished piece. Remember – whether something is treasured or auctioned off after your death isn’t really your choice. An heirloom is only an heirloom if your descendants choose to respect and retain it within the family.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t give your family a steer in the right direction. When you make your purchases, avoid the temptation to buy throwaway junk, and always invest in the best you can afford. If you only buy things you know you’ll cherish, when your family see you taking loving care of your possessions, your children and grandchildren will learn their value.
Why are family heirlooms important?
Heirlooms are legacy pieces which help give your family a sense of intergenerational continuity. They keep important family stories alive, and they secure the legacy of those who pass along their favourite possessions for their descendants to enjoy.
But heirlooms also fulfill another useful purpose and that’s to help streamline the process of disposing of a relative’s possessions. When you know which few pieces were important to them, and for whom they’re intended, it makes it so much easier to dispose of the rest.
Tax implications of selling heirlooms
The first £6,000 from the sale of a “chattel” or heirloom is tax exempt. Anything worth more than that, but less than £15,000 attracts partial tax relief. Full capital gains tax is due on anything worth more than £15K.
A chattel is counted as any possession with a predictable useful life of 50 years or less. This definition encompasses items like: jewellery, antiques, coins and stamps, paintings, and sets of things like chess sets or matching vases. Sometimes it’s worth keeping something in the family simply to avoid the tax man taking a chunk from the proceeds from the sale.
How to pass down heirlooms
The simplest way to ensure the right item goes to the right person is to detail it in your will. To avoid any disputes, make sure your wishes are crystal clear, or better still, give your things away before you die – as long as you survive for seven years after making the gift, the beneficiary won’t be liable for inheritance tax when you’re gone.
What makes a good heirloom?
Though your grandparent’s teapot may look a little old fashioned, remember that furnishing a home is all about creating a sense of balance between modern design and antique style. A particularly fine crockery set, silver serving dishes, or candlesticks all make great heirlooms.
Furniture fashions change so you need to be careful when choosing a legacy piece, but if you opt for something unique – a piece in an unusual style, or by a prestigious maker or designer, it has more chance of avoiding the skip or the auction room when you die. Buying furniture? There are still plenty of craftsmen out there making beautiful bespoke pieces – you don’t have to buy antique.
Good quality jewellery like rings, chains, and cufflinks have timeless appeal, and the bequest of a wristwatch or pocket watch is perfect for marking the passing of each generation. Clothing too makes a good heirloom, and not just that old christening shawl either. A top quality tweed jacket is a great choice – buy the best quality tweed you can find and choose a classic, timeless style.
Buying art? You might not be able to afford a Cezanne, but an original painting does make a great heirloom. And remember, prints, photos, sketches, and sculptures are all art too. Do your research, and choose a piece that really means something to you.
Heirlooms are a great way to show your descendants how much you cared about them. By leaving them something that meant a lot to you, not only do you give the people you love something to remember you by, you also create the family stories of the future.