The Moneyist: When my parents died, my sisters and I split their estate. I chose a painting that was appraised at $50,000. Should I tell them?

United States

Dear Moneyist,

After both of my parents died, my sisters and I divided up furniture, finances, and artwork, etc.

The process of dividing their estate was done equitably, and without stress or rancor. Until now.

My parents had a large art collection. One of the paintings that I chose may be of great value. I am currently having it appraised for insurance purposes. If it is estimated to be valued at $ 50,000, and I later decide to sell or auction it. Am I obligated to tell my sisters?

Should I tell them, and offer to split the proceeds? If I don’t and they somehow later find out, I think it would cause some bitterness. Not so much for the monetary issue, but for not providing transparency.

Do you have any advice? Thank you.

Feeling a Bit Unsure

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Dear Unsure,

If you took the painting for sentimental value and it hangs on your wall, I would say there’s a gray area. You could choose to tell your sisters or not. You did not choose it because you thought it was more valuable than the other artwork in your parents collection (assuming that’s the case, but it may not be so). You chose it because it meant something to you, or because you simply liked it and it reminded you of your parents.

But you intend to realize its value, and the value has come as a surprise to you. If your parents died 10 or 20 years ago, and it has increased significantly in value since then, I see no problem with you selling it. It’s your property, after all. But if they died recently, and this was a $ 50,000 painting when you decided that it would go nicely with your window treatments, then I believe you have an obligation to tell your sisters.

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What happens next depends on them, and you. You can choose to sell the painting, and divide the proceeds each way, should your sisters be comfortable with that. Or you could tell your sisters, and give them another choice: Take an inventory of the pieces you all took from your parents home and have them valued. It may be that there are other valuable pieces in your parents’ collection. If there is one, there is likely to be more.

This underscores the importance of going through the proper procedures when their estate is going through probate and valuing items at the time so you all know exactly the value of what you are each walking away with. It sounds like there was no subterfuge here, hence your letter to me and your conflict over what to do next. But what about the family with one or two expensive pieces that are claimed for sentimental value, and later quietly sold?

Your story is an ethical dilemma, for sure, but it’s also a cautionary tale.

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