Estate Planning for model railroaders

You can't take it with you — or — the one with the most toys wins
What do you want your tombstone to say? Some thoughts on planning ahead for the railroad modeller and collector.
Lance Hardie is a professional epitaph scribe. (Winnipeg Free Press Nov 7, 2007) For a $1000 fee he will write a person's living epitaph while they are still alive so they can chose their own words. Apparently patterns of epitaph writing are changing. They are more original and more personal. Although some old tombstones provide much food for thought. Nancy Millar has written several books on epitaphs including The Final Word - The Book of Canadian Epitaphs. Tramping through the People's Cemetery in Charlottetown PEI she came across this inscription
Walk softly
For a dream lies buried here.
The death of a loved one is a heart-wrenching experience at any time but the mourning soon is affected by the realities of managing day-to-day life as well as dealing with the realities of the loved one's belongings and estate.
We talk about "losing" a loved one. Sometime the survivors gain a great deal in that loss. Sometimes they gain a mountain of stuff, a financial nightmare, an on-going emotional struggle.
The life of a hobbyist or collector is geared toward gaining as many examples of the category of things that fascinate them, learning as much as possible about those artifacts or collecting data about them. This may generate paper, things, or even legal issues of ownership.
Most of us don't want to think about what happens to our collection when we die. We don't voluntarily envision our children discussing whether this item or that item should be sold, given to Value Village or taken to the dump; we don't want to imagine our spouse dickering with a second-hand dealer about the value of our collection; we can't imagine our spouse living in a corner of a home because the collection is taking up the space in the rest of the house, or our valuables being sold off by strangers because we don't have remaining family members who want to or can take responsibility for our collection.
I recall one widow who wouldn't consider parting with her husband's collection because he told her that it was valuable and she shouldn't sell it to anyone. When she became too ill to stay in her home, it was found the collection was a bunch of junk. But we have also heard of the collection given away to a thrift store that was valuable. We may have even been beneficiaries of such a giveaway, finding a real treasure amongst the mundane.
Sure it is hard to contemplate our own mortality and it is easier either to ignore the possibilities or to avoid thinking about the possibility that we may contribute to making the quality of life for our loved ones uncomfortable in the future when they have to deal with our stuff.
So far we have talked about hobbyists and their collections in general. But this is an article about railroad modellers and collectors.
What to do while you are still collecting?
First, it is essential for every modeller or collector to prepare an inventory of their collection. Photographs of the items, collection or layout and a description of the items, how you acquired them and what they cost when you bought them and what you think they are worth are all valuable bits of information to record.
Don't assume that people will realize what was the most prized possession in your collection, the one they should hang on to because it meant so much to you. It may be something you scratch built, or the little locomotive with the crummy paint job that was your start in the hobby. It might be an award you received or a prized document that links your family to the railroad.
The amount you spent on your collection over the years may or may not be reflected in its value when it comes time to dispose of your assets. Some items are not valuable for resale.
Unless your model railroad is built in modular form, it would be difficult to disassemble and rebuild in another venue. The infrastructure may not be of great value to other modellers. Turnouts and track most often are not of significant value for reuse.
Some items may have some resale value. Switch machines and structures are usually resaleable among with small details from the scenery.
You can enhance the likelihood that your collection's value can be realized by keeping original boxes for more valuable items like brass locomotives and storing the boxes in such a way that the item and box can be put together. Photographs are very helpful.
Keeping rolling stock in good condition, putting kits together or leaving them in the sealed box increases the chances that someone will want them.
Magazines, books, documents, and photographs are often part of the hobbyists collection and they can be the part of the collection that is most difficult for the survivors to deal with.
Magazines have some saleability but not as much as most people think. Boxes of railroad magazines sell for a dollar or two, almost not worth carrying them to a sale.
Hobby magazines in good condition are accepted by charitable book markets that do not otherwise accept monthly newstand magazines.
Books have gained in marketability thanks to the internet, ebay, and book dealers' networks. People can try to sell the books themselves on ebay, find a small trader to sell the books for them, or sell the books to a book dealer. Any of these methods may give the book a whole new life. One of my favorite sayings is that a book stored on the shelf for decades is a book and its knowledge destroyed.
Documents and photographs are sometimes the real non-monetary treasures of a collector. Some documents or photos are very valuable but for the most part their value lies in being able to preserve some of the past for future generations. More and more these items are being preserved and their content distributed more widely than ever before by scanning them and storing them electronically on computers, hard drives, disks, and on the internet.
What will happen to your stuff after you die?
This won't concern you unless you have left instructions or have discussed with your executor, family and friends what you want them to do with your collection.
If you were telling your family how to sell your collection 10 years ago, you probably wouldn't have mentioned the internet so it may not be possible to tell someone today what will be the best way to dispose of a collection sometime in the future. But here are some suggestions.
It would be a good idea to have your collection dismantled and packed up by someone knowledgeable about the hobby and/or knowledgeable about your collection specifically. Even the method of taking apart a layout may affect the usefulness or monetary return on its parts.
You should be very honest with your spouse or family about what your collection is. If it was a part of your life that you didn't care if anyone else cared about in the future, let that be known. There is no point in saddling someone with an emotional bond to a collection that your enjoyed while you were alive but didn't care one way or another if anyone concerned themselves in the future.
On the other hand you may have spend $100,000 over the years and you may not have wanted to reveal that to your family. You may be embarrassed while you are still alive to admit that the $100,000 can't be retrieved. On the other hand, you may have salted away a real gem or two that will go a long way to recovering some of that investment. You would save your family a lot of emotional turmoil and energy and possibly even expense if you are candid with that information while you are alive.
If your collection has a considerable monetary value, there may be tax implications to be dealt with upon your death. Providing an appropriate evaluation and consulting a tax accountant will reduce the number of issues your family and heirs will have to manage. Purchasing life insurance in your lifetime to cover future tax liabilities is an option.
Many of the above comments have the subtle but underlying theme that you might be surprised, if you could watch, to find that your family are not an enamoured about keeping, preserving and maintaining your collection as you might have imagined. They have their own lives to live and if you stop and think, you will realize that they can't retrace the footsteps of your life - they have to live their own.
On the other hand, there may be items they treasure and are pleased to have.
What will you do when you have to dispose of someone else's collection?
We have talked about the importance of dismantling and packing the collection carefully to maximize the potential of preservation, documentation, and sale. This can be a daunting challenge and sometimes seems impossible if it is a hodge-podge collection infiltrated by a lot of debris, parts, or plain garbage.
It may be necessary or advisable to pay someone to do this job. It is important to have a trust with the person disposing with the items. A contract is a necessary addition to the trust. If the collection belonged to your spouse, it may be appropriate to trust his best friend with disposing of the collection but one has to consider that this may be misplaced trust. I recall a friend whose husband was killed in an accident who trusted her husband's business partners to guide the financial affairs. She soon discovered that the business partners had developed a greedy streak and were rooking her. She took back the control and prevented the loss of her and her children's sources of future income.
There are several ways to dispose of a collection after the materials are inventoried, dismantled and after friends and family have been given what they have been willed or have chosen to keep.
There are reputable hobby dealers who will take items on consignment or outright buy the collection at a price.
Local clubs often run flea markets or auction sales to dispose of their excess equipment and are often willing to help.
The internet is an avenue with many options which are growing by leaps. The advantage of the internet is that the market potential is large, but shipping, method of payment, and international borders may become an issue. eBay is an option. You can post items on eBay by yourself or you can find someone to do it for you. But don't overlook local websites which will allow you to advertise almost any item free of charge. There are also websites run by individuals who act as web dealers.
Some documents and photographs will be accepted by museums and archives. Many people think of archival donations as being the perogative of the movers and shakers of the community - the mayor, the businessman, or the professor. Most archives will accept papers and documents, especially those that reflect the life of the community. They aren't as interested in the family photo as they are of the streetcar on the tracks showing a view of the local town.
Back to the internet, more and more materials are being collected on internet sites. CNRHA is currently working toward storing visual materials which can include drawings, articles, lists, indexes, and photographs which will be available to a broad audience. Donating materials to a website is a way of keeping the original as well as letting other people have access to it. It is a win-win arrangement.
What will you do about your own collection now?
The way you deal with your collection in life may be, in a sense, the writing of your own epitaph. You won't be there to defend your hopes and dreams, your plans for the future, your long-term vision. What people see when they go through your stuff may be quite different than the image you hoped to portray of yourself.
The frustration of sorting and disposing of the material part of your hobby may leave people with a sadly inappropriate remembrance of you.
What you do now will be your legacy. No, it is not time to give up your hobby and start packing it away. But now is the time to think about what you want to become of your hobby remains and that may change the way you collect, store, document, cull materials and supplies.
Or you might consider an alternative. In the movie Chattanooga Choo Choo, the opening scene pans away from a grave. As you move back from the scene, you realize the coffin is being lowered in a 85-foot boxcar painted white. Perhaps you CAN take it with you but you should start planning for that boxcar right now.
Frances Andrusiak
November 2007

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