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Published: Oct 15, 2008 2 min read


Question: Years ago, my mother-in-law gave my husband and me a pair of paintings of Tim’s great-grandparents. They hang in our home, and we love them. But now Grace wants the paintings back so she can give them to the local historical society, which is celebrating its centennial. What should we do?

Answer: Take a few deep breaths and tell her no. Just because something is a family heirloom doesn’t mean the person who once owned it continues to have a claim on it after it’s been handed down a generation. Rather, it’s the property of the new owner, whose only obligation is to respect its heritage. So unless Grace told you when she dropped off the paintings that she was lending and not giving them to you, they’re yours to enjoy, not hers to enjoy giving away a second time.

We know: It’s your mother-in-law, and saying no isn’t easy. So here’s an approach to consider. Have Tim tell his mother that you treasure the family portraits too much to let them go, but that you’d love to lend them to the historical society for its centennial. In dealing with the organization, though, be certain to make all the arrangements yourself. Given your mother-in-law’s weak grasp of the concept of ownership, the last thing you want is for her name to be on the paperwork at the historical society or for anyone there to assume the portraits are to be returned to her.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at