03 February 2011


     You would think that family history researchers would be comfortable discussing matters of estate and funeral planning, dealing as we do with the preservation of memories of the dead, but I often find my genealogy friends become fidgety when the subject of wills and funerals--their own--arise.
     Now, don't go clicking to another site just because I am making you squirm a bit--this is important!
     What will happen to your years of work when you are gone? Who will preserve those records and photos that you labored to find and organize? Have you safeguarded your collection legally, or at least spoken to family members concerning its care and ownership?
     I have seen instances, heart-breaking to a genealogist, of records and photographs thrown into the trash by family members and friends while cleaning out a deceased person's house. You don't think your family would do that? Sometimes a helpful neighbor tackles the "clutter" to help out a grieving family. Other times, those boxes and binders and files just have no room to fit in a loved one's small apartment. Very often, the photos and records are swiped by a family member, never to be seen by anyone else again. Sorry to sound so cynical, but, as a lawyer and a genealogist, I've seen dissention and accusations of theft in many "close" families that the deceased would never have envisioned (and even some squabbles that the dearly departed obviously planned and relished while alive).
     You cannot assume that others place the same value on your work as you do. Believe it or not, I once met a genealogist who was in the process of trashing boxes of a her late aunt's photo collection. Why? Because, she said, the photos weren't labeled and therefore "were no good to anybody." You would think leaving your photographs to a genealogist would ensure their survival, wouldn't you?
     So, protect your genealogical legacy in the same way that you would your most valuable jewelry: designate an heir for it in your will. If you don't want to revise your will, you can create what most states call a "codicil," which is a sort of amendment to a will. A codicil is subject to the same legal formalities as is a will, so you will want to consult a lawyer. You can leave written instructions to your family members, but those instructions will not have the force of law.
     If no one in the family seems interested in your collection, consider donating it to a local historical or genealogical society. It is wise to check with the society first, to see if your collection is appropriate to their needs and if they would accept the bequest. Then put the bequest in a will or codicil, and inform the institution and your designated executor and family members.
     When choosing an heir, consider if that person is going to continue your work. I know of several people whose collections were bequeathed to family members who squirreled the records and photos away in a closet, lost to the other members of the family who were interested in the family history. You should have a conversation with the person to whom you would like to leave your collection. Make sure that the person wants the materials, and that you are both "on the same page" regarding its preservation and use.
     There is never a better time than now, whatever one's age or health, to provide for the care of what many people consider their "life's work."