Was Your Loved One a Book Lover? Think Twice Before You Throw Them Out

An individual’s belongings—such as jewelry, furniture, photographs, and books—sometimes slip through the cracks of their estate plan. While certain books may be gifted to a beneficiary in a loved one’s will, a book lover may leave behind other books that the family must decide what to do with.

The family’s first inclination when encountering piles of old books might be to donate them to charity or throw them away. But getting rid of a book collection without first assessing it could be a mistake.

Most books have little or no market value. Those that are not valuable to collectors, however, may have personal value. And a book collection could contain a hidden treasure or two, not only due to a book’s rarity but because of what is hidden in its pages.

Books and the Residuary Estate

Even with the most thorough estate planning, there is likely to be some personal property that is unaccounted for after somebody passes away. What remains after specific items have been distributed to loved ones and final expenses have been paid makes up the residuary estate.[1]

A residuary estate can contain newly acquired accounts and property that were not accounted for in the latest draft of an estate plan. It can also contain overlooked items that, at least on the surface, seem to have nothing more than sentimental value. An old family Bible might be left to a close family member. The other books on the shelf, though, may be left in no-man’s-land.

Most wills and trusts contain language specifying the disposition of the residuary estate. The language might state, for example, that any residuary estate goes to an individual family member, into a trust, or to charity.

If the residuary language is general, such as “all my personal belongings are to be divided equally among my children,” it is likely that the children will have to decide what to do with leftover books and other personal belongings that they do not want to take with them. Going through a loved one’s belongings once they are gone can be an emotionally difficult process. Deciding what to do with their stuff is no less complicated.

Decluttering experts recommend sorting items into separate piles based on whether the intent is to keep, throw away, sell, or donate them.[2] Items that are not kept can be sold in an estate sale. Estate sales are sometimes best left to companies that specialize in them. These companies are knowledgeable about pricing items for sale and can help ease the emotional burden of selling a deceased loved one’s property. It is important to ask for the company’s price up front and to get an estimate of the value of your items to avoid paying for the estate sale out of pocket if not enough items sell or not enough money is raised.

Assessing a Book’s (Monetary) Value

An estate sale company may advise the family that a book in the collection is valuable, or a particular volume might stand out while decluttering.

Maybe the book is old, written by a well-known author, or has a distinguishing physical characteristic, such as striking illustrations or the author’s signature. Perhaps it is just a hunch that a book is worth setting aside and learning more about before being consigned to an estate sale—or the dustbin of family history.

Age alone does not make a book valuable. Nor does the rarity of a book. Many millions of books have been published since the invention of the printing press. Most are about as valuable as the paper they are printed on. Only a tiny fraction have real value to book buyers.

According to Nelson Rare Books, three elements determine book value[3]:

  • rarity
  • scarcity
  • condition

A book that has some or all of these characteristics is not necessarily worth a lot of money. Some books are old, scarce, and in fine condition but still not valuable. A book could have a lot of copies in print, but have another distinguishing characteristic, such as a signature, inscription, or notes in the margin from a famous former owner, that makes it rare.

First editions of books (i.e., first printings) tend to have higher value than later editions. However, the rarity, scarcity, and condition of a book notwithstanding, a book that is not in demand will not have a strong resale market.

Among first editions, some books stand out as true collectible gems. The books on this Reader’s Digest list can fetch $50,000 to $5 million or more. To gauge the value of a book, you can visit websites such as Biblio.com or AbeBooks and fill in the search box information fields.

Keep in mind that, even if a book appears to have a strong market, it could take months or even years to find the right buyer. Ultimately, the value of a book is whatever someone is willing to pay for it—not what an online resource says it is worth.

Hidden Surprises in Books

A book without intrinsic value can have something valuable concealed within its pages. Some of the hidden treasures found in old books include a lock of George Washington’s hair, an original C.S. Lewis letter, a map of Middle Earth annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien, and a winning lottery ticket worth $750,000.[4] Other people have found cash, collector’s items, and other surprises between the pages.[5]

The artifacts left behind in books might lack financial or objective historical value but have subjective value to family members. Items like handwritten notes, photographs, coupons, receipts, and tickets can be placed in a family scrapbook as a unique and tangible reminder of someone. For inspiration, check out this project started by a librarian at the Oakland Public Library for collecting forgotten mementos in books.

Keeping Books for a Personal Collection

The typical US household has more than one hundred books.[6] The odds of any one book being valuable enough to sell to a collector are very low. Yet a book that is virtually worthless as a historical artifact can still have family or personal significance.

Some books have been in a family for generations and can continue to be passed on. Maybe a mother owned a copy of The Night Before Christmas and read it each Christmas Eve to her children. One of the children might want to keep the book and carry on the tradition, eventually passing the book on to their own kids.

A book could also have an inscription that imbues it with sentimental value. Or it might simply be a favorite book of a loved one that they always had near at hand. There are countless reasons why a book might take on emotional dimensions. If it resonates with just one person, this alone gives it significance.

Love of books is often inspired in childhood. Having books in the home is a strong predictor of a lifelong reading habit. The child or grandchild of a book lover might themselves be a book lover. For them, the books might have value in and of themselves, absent any monetary or nostalgic considerations.

Gifting Books and Other Personal Items in an Estate Plan

Gaps in an estate plan can lead to conflict among surviving family members. Estate plans tend to focus on big-ticket items like houses, cars, bank accounts, and investments. But deciding who is entitled to personal mementos—especially valuable ones—can be an underestimated source of contention.

Verbally promising personal property to a loved one will probably not pass legal muster or satisfy your loved ones who feel left out. To avoid conflicts over personal belongings, consider incorporating them into an estate plan. This can be accomplished with a document called a personal property memorandum. Personal items can also be given away while a person is alive, leaving no doubt about ownership.

Small estate planning details can make a big difference. The more specific you can be in your estate plan, the better. To ensure that you are not leaving out anything important, contact our office to schedule an appointment.

[1] Residuary Estate, Legal Info. Inst., https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/residuary_estate (last visited May 30, 2023).

[2] How to Declutter a Loved One’s Personal Belongings after Death, The Simplicity Habit, https://www.thesimplicityhabit.com/how-to-declutter-personal-belongings-after-death/ (last visited May 30, 2023).

[3] Is This Book Valuable?, Nelson Rare Books, https://www.nelsonrarebooks.com/is-this-book-valuable.php (last visited May 30, 2023).

[4] Jake Rossen, 5 Amazing Things Found in Old Books, Mental Floss (Feb. 12, 2020), https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/616989/amazing-things-found-old-books.

[5] Sarah Laskow, The Best Things Found between the Pages of Old Books, Atlas Obscura (Feb. 15, 2018), https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/surprising-discoveries-pages-old-books.

[6] Robby Berman, This Is How a Bookish Home Helps a Child to Thrive, World Econ. F. (Oct. 17, 2018), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/a-home-library-gives-kids-a-major-advantage.