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Things in High Places

By: Attorney Katherine S. Breckenridge, Esq.

Published June 14, 2014

Wills & Trusts

Do you remember the first time you heard the phrase, “you can’t take it with you” – the implication being that “things” are temporary?

What one values, seems to shift during various stages of life. I used to dream of living in the big Victorian house in Pennsylvania that my great, great grandfather built. It had a proper parlor, pocket doors, and stained glass windows in an attic that was the perfect hiding place and filled with boxes of treasures.

That seems to be such a distant dream. Though I love my old house in Culpeper, I often wonder if my husband and I will need or want all of this space in the next ten years. As I look around my house, there are items that I treasure that I am just not ready to part with. Whew! That seems like embarrassing honesty. It is the truth. I love the Victorian couches, the antique chairs with their intricate wood detailing, the lace pillow that was my great-aunt’s, and the old sewing box that my great-grandmother decorated with a wood burning tool. I enjoy these items.

Perhaps it is not so much that it is the items themselves to which I am so attached, but the memories they represent. If that is the case, perhaps I can be slightly forgiven for my attachment to these earthly things. For example, when my parents downsized four years ago, they asked if I would like their dining room table and chairs. My initial reaction was, “I simply don’t have room.” After I hung up the phone, a wave of nostalgia came over me, and then the tears followed; that table and chairs had been part of our family for almost fifty years. We had celebrated almost every family birthday around that table. That table had been witness to most Thanksgivings, Christmas dinners, middle-of-the-night prom breakfasts cooked by my parents, graduations, and retirement parties. What was I thinking? How could I let that piece of history pass out of the family? I immediately picked up the phone, and through my tears, gladly accepted that table into my household.

Time seems to be passing more quickly as I age, I admit to that realization giving me cause to pause. And, in some manner, cling to these antiques; hoping to keep alive the precious life cycle for my own children.

At various times, my “teenage/twenty-something” children have shared with me what antiques they would like when my husband and I pass away. Sometimes, the “wish lists” are long and delivered in a very composed manner (of course, causing me to have to excuse myself as the enormity and finality can be overwhelming).

In the world of estate planning, these “things,” that are referenced above, are considered tangible personal property. As an estate planning attorney, I often write into Wills or Trusts an option for a “living list,” where the Testator or Settlor (Grantor) may elect to have a list attached to his or her estate planning document in which he or she can add or subtract tangible personal property items at will, until his or her passing or incapacity.

The benefit of such a list, in my case, would enable me to respond to the changing wishes of my children; perhaps, reflecting an item of tangible personal property that comes to mean more to one child than the other as I share the history behind the pieces.

For now, I cling to the pieces that help me keep the memories alive. I smile, that if at this moment my husband and I were to downsize, we would be stepping amongst old tables and couches, old books and boxes – all stuffed into a small space.

I know that, “I can’t take it with me.” And though right now these “things,” though helpful and important, are temporary, I often joke that there are some things here on Earth that are so incredible, that certainly they will be part of Heaven – dark chocolate, New York-style pizza, and Canandaigua Lake . . . and, maybe my old books!