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Should a historical society ever refuse an estate bequest? If someone has willed possessions – photographs, books, cultural materials – to a Society, is it advisable to decline part or all of the materials, or is there the need to keep the peace by accepting the whole lot? How might the Society approach a conversation with the heirs about the decision-making process?

Deborah Morse-Kahn

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2 Responses to Refusing a bequest

  1. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Oh, another hard one. The short answer is yes, sometimes museums can, and should, refuse bequests. The best intentions of donors are sometimes at odds with the needs, resources, and wants of the institution to whom they might be bequeathing something.

    In the real world, however, this can be much more difficult. It is always best to have a conversation with someone intent upon leaving you something besides money (or money with strings). I’d feel better as the bequeath-er if I knew that my gift would be valued by the museum after my passing. That said, I’ve been avoiding some of these conversations with my members myself. They can be difficult and have the potential to drive someone away as a loyal supporter.

    If it comes to being faced with a will provision that is not to your advantage, I guess you start the conversation with the heirs the same way you would with the person who left the stuff to you, were they still alive. Talk about the museum’s mission, and its resources, the existing collection, collecting policies and plans–whatever you need to apprise them of that will help them see the museum’s point of view.

    If someone leaves you the entire contents of their house, you have to be very picky about what you take and make sure that it is what is needed, and wanted. Heirs will hate that. However, I would be willing to bet that any estate attorney will tell you that you have the right to accept all or part of a bequest. The heirs can then decide how they want to get rid of the rest of the stuff.

    If there are no heirs, you can just take what you want for the permanent collection and then have an estate sale.


  2. Mike Worcester says:

    The first thought that came to mind for me was: "are there any stipluations on the bequest", especially as it relates to artifacts.

    Our limited experience here with that has been to make sure the family knows that we have collections standards that guide what we keep. For instance, we were offered a thirty-year supply (seriously, 30 years!!) of National Geographic magazines from a local person as a part of a larger estate clearing. As not fun as it was, I had to explain that those items were easily available in other formats, and that they really did not fit our collections paramaters, even if they were owned by a local person.

    I try to make sure the family knows that our first consideration is looking for items with a specific connection to the community. Most times they understand, some times they do not. And often, their attitude is: keep what you want, toss what you do not. That way, they don’t feel guilty about pitching their parents stuff.

    As for financial bequests–another discussion for another day.



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