How will you like to be remembered? What will be the defining element of your legacy?
Since his death, George Floyd’s name has become synonymous with a global call to address systemic racism. Millions of people around the world have spoken out and marched in an effort to address systematic racism. At a personal level, our oldest son Micah Wessman died unexpectedly in 2009. Following his death, my wife and I founded a nonprofit organization now called Hope for the Mourning to help fellow grieving parents. While both George Floyd and Micah Wessman have a legacy beyond their own lifetimes, neither of them had a choice in creating that legacy.
Many of us will, however, have the opportunity to control the narrative of our legacy. Especially in these difficult days of the global pandemic, I have had the opportunity to discuss with some of my clients the legacy we hope to leave. The preparation of a “Legacy Letter,” also known as an Ethical Will, allows us to articulate those desires. While holding no legal significance, a Legacy Letter can serve as an autobiographical narrative, a proclamation for family and friends of one’s deeply-held beliefs. You and your clients might consider writing a Legacy Letter for the following reasons:
- Address “Mission Drift” Within Charitable Organizations. A few years ago, I represented the personal representative of the estate of a well-respected religious leader. Following his death, the leader’s name was used by certain members of his church as part of a campaign that was not met with universal approval. Based upon this leader’s theological writings, the personal representative felt certain that the leader would not have approved of the activity, and so I assisted in ending the use of his name by the campaign organizers. While most of us do not have published religious texts, most of us have certain deeply-held beliefs. To the extent we can articulate those beliefs, we provide direction to our family members on the use of funds, even if our favorite religious, cultural, civic, artistic or athletic organizations should change (“drift”) after our death.
- Use of Assets by Children. I have the honor of representing clients who have received advanced degrees. As a result, these clients have a high regard for education, and would prefer that their children and grandchildren use inherited assets for educational purposes. Whether using a Family Vision Statement or an Ethical Will, I encourage my clients to articulate how they prefer that their children use remaining assets.
- Releasing Adult Children From Misperceived Obligations. I also represent some clients who own a family business, a family cabin or a family farm. Some adult children who receive an inheritance feel a moral obligation to keep such unique inherited assets at personal cost to themselves. To the extent not covered by the legal documents, an Ethical Will could serve to free up the adult children by providing them with the freedom to sell such assets, either immediately at the client’s death or upon the occurrence of a certain event (e.g., financial hardship or simply the passage of time).
- Relationship Closure. In writing a Legacy Letter, we may realize we have what I call a “relationship debt” still outstanding. That is, they have not yet closed out a difficult chapter of life with someone. Whether it be a spouse, child, friend, or even former co-worker, we might need to initiate communication with someone to attempt to achieve closure.
- Changed Lifetime Behavior. In writing out our narrative, we might find a disparity between our desired behavior and our actual behavior. In the words of my friend and business coach Matt Norman, “Vision is realized twice- in our minds as we imagine the future, and in our actions as we make it a reality.” If your closest friends and family members cannot agree to the veracity of your narrative, perhaps writing out your narrative would be the means by which behavior change begins. Whether it is spending less time at work, giving more time to charity, or increasing involvement in the lives of children and grandchildren, the process can re-orient the rest of your life around your legacy letter.
I am hired to address legal and tax matters, I don’t have the opportunity to engage in these conversations with most of my clients. However, based upon my experience with some of my clients, and in creating my own Legacy Letter, I encourage everyone to attend to write a Legacy Letter. The use of a legacy letter allows us to reflect on our own morality, our desire for what brings meaning, and how we might live the rest of our lives he balance of our mortal days in a manner more consistent with our beliefs.