What happens to your family heirlooms in your divorce?

Heirlooms often have little more than sentimental value. However, in high-asset divorces, family heirlooms can become a point of contention. Art, guns, jewelry, antique furniture, and other items are meant to be passed down for generations, but those items may be subject to division as part of your marital property under certain circumstances.

To avoid precious family heirlooms from being lost in a divorce it is necessary to know your rights.

Are family heirlooms marital property?

No. Inherited items are legally considered personal property, regardless of whether they were received before or during a marriage. Documentation is key to establishing that an item is a family heirloom, however, and can go a long way toward protecting your interests.

What steps can you take to protect your family’s heirlooms in case a divorce happens? Consider these:

  • Education: In addition to legal counsel, studying up on inheritance and divorce goes a long way towards protecting heirlooms.
  • Identification: A comprehensive list of all heirlooms exempted from marital property should be compiled.
  • Documentation: Proving chain of custody can be done with: family photos, correspondence, appraisal documents, inventory lists, wills, etc.
  • Preservation: Heirlooms should be removed and placed in a secure location that is only accessible to the rightful owner.

It’s important to remember, however, that ownerships of an heirloom can transfer to your spouse if you gave them the item as a gift at some point. For example, if you gave your spouse your mother’s wedding ring, your spouse is now likely its owner (absent any written agreement, like a prenup).

What if your spouse invested in or improved the heirloom?

Spouses may have a legal claim if they did anything that increased the value of an heirloom. If an appraisal shows the value of the heirloom before the improvement exists, then the value of their contribution can be easily established by comparing it to a current appraisal. If a pre-investment appraisal doesn’t exist, then any documentation that demonstrates the spouse’s contribution is key. The heirloom is still private property, but the spouse’s contribution may require compensation or negotiation.

Juggling everything from property to pets during a divorce can be overwhelming. Legal counsel that is experienced in high-asset divorces can build a solid strategy to make sure that family heirlooms stay in the family for generations to come.



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