Tips from a Kentucky estate lawyer: how to pass on memorabilia and collections in your estate

by Mandy Hicks

Elvis items

Many people collect all kinds of things, and these collections come to hold tremendous sentimental and in some cases monetary value. As people age, they begin to think about who they would like to have certain items or entire collections, and sometimes, bold relatives or friends suggest they’d like to receive something special to remember you by. Gifts and promises of gifts are also made to honor a special relationship.

These type of collections can cause significant arguments after you are deceased. The best way to avoid such disputes is to clearly specify in writing exactly who is to receive what items. Verbally telling a relative or friend what you would like for them to have upon their death, and giving away significant items while you’re still living, causes confusion and prompts some to get greedy.

It’s the last thing anybody wants after they’re gone.


For our clients, we recommend that they take the time to inventory their home, storage facilities and anywhere else they might have special items and create a list of who they want to receive what. The more specific the list is the better. Printed photos are even more helpful. You can leave a list with labeled photos with your will so that everyone understands what they are receiving. It helps your attorney and your executor ensure your wishes are followed after you die, and prevents arguments.

Be advised, however, there are special provisions that must be present in your estate planning documents to allow for such lists. If you decide to make a gift of any of your belongings while you are still living, make sure you document such gift and update any list you prepare for your executor and attorney. The importance of this is illustrated in the case below, which also illustrates just how disputes over ownership of your prized collections play out in court cases.

One recent case involving an extensive collection of Elvis memorabilia prompted estate litigation. The case ended up in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Estates of Nell G. and Gary Pepper sued Nancy Pease Whitehead and the Pease Family Partnership over the proceeds of a sale of a collection of Elvis memorabilia. Nancy Pease Whitehead was a nurse who cared for Gary Pepper, who was a friend of Elvis and an Elvis memorabilia collector. Both Nancy and Gary shared a love of Elvis. While he was living in his home, Nancy cared for Gary extensively and without compensation. Gary had cerebral palsy.

Gary moved into a nursing home, and took some items from his collection with him. The items that were left behind in his home he told Nancy to “keep.” Gary’s family moved him to California, where he later died. Nancy’s family put the items from the Elvis collection in a partnership, and later sold the items, bringing in $250,000 in proceeds.

The family sued to receive some of the funds from the auction. The jury which heard the case ruled against the Pepper family and in favor of the Pease Family Partnership, determining that Gary had given Nancy a “conditional gift,” the condition being in the Court’s words, “keep it unless I ask for it back.” The family appealed to the U.S. District Court for the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed the jury verdict.

The chief legal issue in this case surrounded who owned the property and who had the rights to sell it. What made it difficult to determine was the lack of documentation of the gift. The Pease Family Partnership produced letters from Gary Pepper to Nancy Pease Whitehead and photos of the two of them together, indicating they were friends and had a special relationship. In the end, that was enough to convince the jury that he truly intended for her to have the collection because she understood the value of the collection. Nancy and her sister maintained it and kept it for nearly 25 years before it was sold.

Making your instructions clear, and in writing, prevents these type of legal battles, and preserves more of the proceeds of your estate for your heirs to enjoy, pass on to their own families and preserve your family legacy. Working with a qualified attorney who knows wills, trusts, and estate law well helps you avoid these type of potential pitfalls and gives you peace of mind. To discuss setting up your estate plans, contact attorney Nathan Vinson at (270) 781-6500 or by e-mail at, or use our online form.

Photo credit: badeendjun, morguefile

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