We all pass away eventually, and we all hope of leaving behind some kind of legacy. The older we get, the more important this becomes – especially as we see our loved ones grow up and lead lives of their own. With age comes time for introspection, and a thoughtful look at the past – and what might come with the future. And as we accept the fact that we will one day be no more, we wonder how we can ensure that we leave behind a positive, lasting, and important legacy to benefit our loved ones.
One final, lasting gift. For most, the thought of leaving behind anything meaningful might start and end with the state of one’s bank account – few Americans, after all, are prospering financially in these times, and you might not feel like you have a sizeable inheritance to leave behind. But a legacy is far more than just money, and all Americans agree – regardless of financial well-being – that they want to be remembered for the memories they’ve shared with loved ones, above all else.
Defining a Legacy
To be remembered, and to leave a lasting mark on our loved ones, requires a little preparation. While most Americans can agree that it’s important to plan for one’s legacy, very few do. Research published by Merrill Lynch in the form of a survey showed that, when defining a legacy, there are four key factors, one of which stands head and shoulders above the rest:
- Values and life lessons.
- Instructions and wishes.
- Financial assets and real estate.
- Sentimental personal possessions.
Above all else, all surveyed individuals agreed that one’s values and life lessons are more important than anything else, followed by instructions and wishes for one’s final days, final resting place, and the distribution of one’s effects. Only then did anything financial come into view as important – signifying that there is more to planning one’s legacy than the monetary.
Not All About the Money
The survey goes on to conclude that over 90 percent of surveyed individuals agree that the most important factor of a life well lived is having family and friends that love you. Second to that is a positive impact on society, followed by a successful career, at only 27 percent. Only ten percent felt that accumulating a lot of wealth served as an indicator of a life well lived.
So how does an estate plan factor into all this? If leaving behind a meaningful and lasting legacy is largely a matter of leaving behind one’s wisdom and passing on in peace, having found closure with others, how might an estate plan – which largely deals with the organization and distribution of one’s worldly possessions – reflect the importance of an immaterial legacy?
By focusing on the immaterial, of course. There is more to an estate plan than the contents and financial value of the estate. An estate can also contain important messages and remembrances. An estate plan often includes a will, which leaves behind instructions for the guardianship of one’s surviving dependents.
An estate plan also includes documents that allow loved ones to act as vital proxies for financial and healthcare reasons, giving you the opportunity to be open with your family regarding your wishes for your final days and care. A living will is a document included in a comprehensive estate plan that informs healthcare professionals of your wishes and values regarding specific procedures, giving them an indication of how far they should go to prevent death.
An Equitable Inheritance, Not an Equal One
When a person passes away, their possessions are only distributed after passing through the probate court – if the total sum of their estate is below a certain value, the probate process is expedited, but without explicit and valid instructions on how to distribute the possessions, intestacy law kicks in and everything is distributed to the next of kin and the surviving spouse as per state law.
This is often not a fair nor balanced approach to inheritance. Over the decades, the West has been seeing a growing trend of moving away from an older, conservative approach to inheritance, wherein the firstborn son traditionally inherits all major properties and businesses, onto a new approach wherein inheritance is a matter of equity rather than equality – to each their own, as per their needs and abilities.
Navigating these waters can be very difficult, as you risk upsetting one or more of your children, or causing harm to their sibling relationships. But by being honest and upfront about your intentions, and planning your legacy ahead of time, you can diffuse tensions before things become ugly in your absence.
Ensuring a Dignified & Good Death
What is a good death? To many, the two equally important factors to a good death are the presence of loved ones, and the elimination of unnecessary pain and suffering. The third and fourth factors include maintaining one’s dignity and mental clarity.
Modern medicine allows us to stave off death more than ever before, but the consequences of surviving certain potentially life-ending events by way of medical intervention can be severe. A comprehensive estate plan grants you greater control over how you wish your death to look like.
Talking to the Family
When speaking to your family about your potential estate plans, take on a life-affirming tone. Remember that this isn’t about discussing the end, but rather, it’s an opportunity to talk about the benefits of planning ahead financially. It’s best to start conversations like this early on – if your children are teens or in their 20s, start talking about these things now, as they begin to become financially responsible, so the conversations aren’t fraught with potential anxiety or unease about your eventual passing.
Starting early on estate planning and family talks regarding topics such as inheritance and healthcare can help you in the future, when it’s time to talk about the final touches to your legacy planning.
Remember – there’s a tremendous benefit in planning ahead. One of the biggest reasons to pick up and start estate planning is to take the burden of your own passing from your family.
It’s going to be hard enough to grieve a loved one’s death, but if that loved one left behind a complicated financial history and plenty of unanswered questions, it only serves to cause and prolong further heartbreak.
Whether you like it or not, you will leave behind a legacy. You cannot control when that will happen. But you can prepare for it, and control how it will happen.