The Photo Legacy You Leave Your Kids

Don’t leave behind three obsolete devices filled with thousands of digital photos for your children to find when you’re gone. Prepare your pictures so they provide comfort—not a burden—to your children: It’s one of the most meaningful things you can do for your kids.

how to organize your photos to leave a photo legacy for your children when you die

Prepare for the inevitable.

We are all going to die one day. Hopefully you’re not thinking about this inevitability too often, but it’s wise to prepare: Have a will drafted by an estate attorney, prepare your finances and insurance, and organize your records. Even this common wisdom is too often ignored by many.

So is it only the organizationally obsessed who will think about something as mundane as preparing your photos? I hope not.

The legacy of family photos, stories, and the artifacts of memory—scrapbooks, letters, heirlooms—may be of greater value to your heirs than your monetary legacy. Don’t underestimate how much a connection to the past will mean to your loved ones someday!

All that stuff can be a burden to your kids.

It’s convenient as heck to have a basement in which to toss those extra boxes of stuff. But Americans have taken consumerism to new levels in recent years, with shows about hoarding captivating television viewers and paid storage facilities dotting suburban landscapes. We love our stuff, for sure. And while I doubt you are a hoarder, chances are your closets and garage are housing plenty of stuff.

Julie Hall, author of The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff, speaks from decades of experience when she says that the next generation will undoubtedly be burdened by all that you will leave behind. “I can virtually guarantee they will not care for these items the way you do, and often are upset and resentful when having to sell or discard them,” she says. “When this happens, hasty decisions are made to ‘just get rid of it.’”

Her advice? “Choose only your favorite things and let the rest go. Future generations will be most appreciative.”

Organize your family photos so they provide comfort, not nuisance.

Don’t assume that your library of family photos is exempt from that “just get rid of it” mentality. If what you leave behind is messy or overwhelming, well, then it’s more of a burden than a gift.

Here’s how to approach your photo organization project, in seven simple steps:

  1. Organize.
  2. Toss.
  3. Caption.
  4. Designate.
  5. Create.
  6. Permit.
  7. Hire.
organizing family photos on your computer is an important step in leaving a legacy for your family

1 - Organize.

Tossing family photos can be one of the hardest things we do. There is a guilt associated with it—those pictures meant something to someone, after all. But do they mean anything to you? Will they matter to your children? Before you can determine which pictures to keep and which to trash, you must first organize them.

Choose a method that suits you, and dive in: Chronological, thematic, or by individual.

  • If you think creating a straight visual timeline of your life is best, keep in mind that it’s unlikely you will know exact dates for everything; sorting photographs into decades might be most efficient.
  • Sorting pictures by theme—birthdays, vacations, Christmas, childhood milestones, etc.—is a popular option for those who may want to create books or slideshows down the road. It can be fun to see the similarities in your traditions or amongst your children, too.
  • It’s possible that you are undertaking this organization project with the idea of divvying up the treasures for your kids. The most challenging part here, particularly with physical photographs, is that multiple children are likely to appear in one photo. I suggest creating one pile for those shots, and prioritizing having those images digitized first.

2 - Toss.

Delete pictures from your phone. Throw away old photos. Easier said than done? Yes, but once complete, this process can feel liberating. And it will be tremendously less burdensome for your heirs. Find advice for how to start trashing digital photos in this helpful article. And don’t forget to place the digital images you choose to keep into albums or folders sorted by date or theme—a hard drive filled with thousands of pictures in no particular order will be more overwhelming than inviting!

Do the same thing with the piles of physical photos you sorted in step one—begin to throw away any that do not hold meaning. Get rid of duplicates and indecipherable pictures.

On the most basic level, ask yourself: Does the picture tell a story that you want to remember? Is it a spectacular photo? If the answer to either of those is YES, it’s a keeper. If not, consider if someone else may value it, or put it in the garbage.

3 - Caption.

Now that you’ve sorted and narrowed down your collection, it’s time to preserve the most basic details of your important pictures. Use a photo-safe pen to write names, dates, and places on the back of your physical photos. Write legibly, and include full names whenever possible. Don’t assume your children will remember their toddler friends’ names or even their grandparents’, for that matter.

If you are technologically savvy, consider inputting all the caption information into the metadata of your digital photos. If that’s too ambitious, print out the most important ones, even on regular office paper, so you can write the information on them.

Seem like a crazy amount of work? Perhaps it is a lot, but consider this: What value will these photos hold if your family members do not even know what they represent? (None.) Alternatively, what value will they hold if you share not only the vital details, but the stories behind them? (Priceless.)

4 - Designate.

Don’t leave it for your kids and your grandkids and your siblings to hash out who gets what. Determine who might want your photos, and divvy them up accordingly.

Many people find that gifting old photos, especially, to their loved ones, is a worthwhile endeavor to do now. Sit with those you love, use your photographs as prompts to share the stories of your life, and see how much they are cherished! Your time and story sharing are the best gifts you can give. If you can’t part with your pictures just yet, share your intentions for bequesting them when you are gone.

5 - Create.

There are strong reasons why we hold our family photos dear. They connect us to the past, testify to our triumphs and experiences, and make us remember. And smile.

Share the smiles with those you love by creating something special from your favorite photo moments:

By creating something—and sharing it—you are giving life to the stories behind your photos.

6 - Permit.

Give permission to your children to toss your things. You may have an attachment to your stuff, but your children will find their own connection to what you leave behind—and it may be to something completely unexpected.

Let them know that you do not expect them to keep everything, and if you have a preferred charity, tell them you’d be happy to have your things be donated. Likewise, tell them which photographs and heirlooms you would most like to pass on, and why. When your loved ones are armed with this knowledge, their decision-making becomes much less emotionally charged, and they are more likely to hold onto and cherish those things that hold true meaning.

7 - Hire.

If all of the above seems too daunting, or if your time is simply taken up by other priorities right now, consider hiring a professional photo organizer. They can jump in at any stage of the process or help out with just one step.

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