The Moneyist: ‘Who should get my mother’s diamonds?’ My late sister left them to her son’s wife. I pleaded with my nephew, but he won’t budge. What options do I have?

Dear Quentin,

By the time I was 19, both of my parents had passed away. My mom died from heart disease and my dad died two years later from lung cancer. My sister and I were quite close, but her alcoholic husband was always “stirring the pot” and for that reason I distanced myself. I regret this because I never became as close to my godson that I had hoped. 

My sister’s husband took his own life, which brought my sister and I much closer again, but it was too late for me and my only nephew and first of three godchildren. He was grown and married and it appeared that he had been brainwashed with unsavory lies told to him by his father. He is now married, and by fate or choice, he does not have any children. 

In February 2019, my husband passed away, and I lost my sister in December 2019. I was given my sister’s car, and my nephew was gracious enough to offer me anything in the house that I wanted. My sister bought and lived in our childhood home. When my husband asked me to marry him we decided to purchase a house rather than a ring.

‘One month after my sister died, I found out from a non-family member that my sister left all of her jewelry to her daughter-in-law. I truly assumed that my godson would give me something.’

Among her possessions: My sister had my mother’s diamond from her engagement ring. She also had her cluster ring of 32 diamonds gifted by our father for their 25th wedding anniversary, and she also had possession of our grandmother’s cross. My sister’s husband had purchased numerous diamond tennis bracelets, earrings and pendants. 

One month after my sister died, I found out from a non-family member that my sister left all of her jewelry to her daughter-in-law. I truly assumed that my godson would give me something. I don’t have any children of my own so of course I would leave anything that belonged to my mother, who he never met, to her only grandchild.

 I called him and let him know how hurt I was. He sounded so sympathetic while I poured my heart out for 45 minutes. It’s now two years later, and guess what? Nothing. He never mentioned it again. Just like my sister when she was uneasy talking about something (“I don’t want to talk about it”). He dropped the subject and never brought it up again.

I have long had a life-insurance policy with my nephew as the beneficiary. It is now worth over $500,000. Sorry, kid. I have two other godchildren who keep in touch, come to visit, and mow my lawn. They will be splitting that policy. He’s out. Thank you so much for listening and letting me unload. I feel so betrayed. Who should get my mother’s diamonds?

Any advice is welcomed.

Sister, Daughter & Aunt

Dear Sister, Daughter & Aunt,

Of course, no one could have foreseen your sister’s death, so you never imagined you would be in such a predicament all these years later where these precious family heirlooms went to your niece-in-law rather than be returned to you. When your parents died, their possessions were divided. You don’t say how they were divided — did your mother leave these gems to your sister, did you draw lots or simply choose items that had sentimental value? Nor did you say whether you both agreed to the division. 

It’s a hard reality: Whether or not it was an acrimonious division of assets, once these heirlooms were divided, these diamonds became your sister’s property, just as whatever items you were left with became your property. Your sister and nephew are your only remaining immediate family, so I can see why you would have longed to be closer, and especially why you have wanted to have a relationship with your nephew/godson. The disappointment over your sister and nephew’s decisions are compounded by this relative estrangement.

These diamonds belonged to your mother and, in an ideal world, it would have been forward-thinking to have an arrangement where they would have passed to you in the event that your sister predeceased you. If she or your nephew were aware of the $500,000 life-insurance policy, that may have greased the wheels. However, they chose a different path. It will cost them far more in the long run, of course, but it’s as much your nephew’s wife’s decision as it is his, given that these items were bequeathed to your niece-in-law. 

There are equitable ways to choose items, which avoid chaotic scenes reminiscent of ‘Supermarket Sweep.’

The Law Offices of Marilyn J. Belew in Decatur, Texas has the following advice for families: “Put aside any items of significant worth for special handling. It’s only fair that valuable items be appraised. That way, everyone knows what they are trading off as they make decisions. Name what you want. The vast majority of personal items may be easy to divide. What you find emotionally significant and will treasure may not resonate with your sibling. You can easily divide up items that aren’t desired by more than one person.”

There are equitable ways to choose items, which avoid chaotic scenes reminiscent of “Supermarket Sweep.” “Use a system to divide the rest,” Belew said. “Commonly, family members will take turns, each choosing an heirloom item, one at a time, until everything is taken. Decide how to handle the big items. If ‘taking turns’ doesn’t work for the special items that you set aside and valued, you can always agree to sell them at auction and divide the value. Or, the person who wants something can offer to pay its value to the estate for division.”

Ultimately, however, this is a cautionary tale for all parents to make such decisions while they are still living, and to leave a detailed will specifying all valuables. If your mother had two beautiful diamond rings, it would make sense to bequeath one ring to your sister, and the other ring to you. But sometimes life gets busy, and people become unexpectedly sick, and other events take precedence over such matters. These decisions can be difficult and create tension, of course, but it’s far worse to leave a bitter feud among siblings behind. 

These diamond rings belonged to your mother. They also belonged to your nephew’s mother. If you see it from that perspective — and understand what they represent to your nephew too — it may help you to move on with greater peace of mind. No diamond, no matter how precious, is worth sacrificing your happiness for. Ultimately, we are here for a finite amount of time and, whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all leasing our possessions until the next generation come along.

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