Legacy Letters: How Do I Validate My Life?
Almost everyone is familiar with the standard estate planning documents: wills, trusts, medical and financial powers of attorney, living wills, etc.
Certainly these legal documents that direct how, to whom, and when a person’s assets will be distributed upon their death are critically important; but generally, they say nothing about the moral and ethical values a person wishes to leave to his or her heirs.
An increasing number of people are looking to supplement their legal estate documents with legacy letters, also called legacy wills or ethical wills. Legacy letters can preserve and pass along a precious gift – lasting words of wisdom – to loved ones. They are a way to record and share family history, guiding principles, beliefs, faith, hopes, life lessons, love and forgiveness with your family, friends and community. The idea might also make it a little easier emotionally and psychologically for a person to “let go.”
Unlike wills of inheritance or living wills, legacy letters or ethical wills are not legal documents. However, there are many positive reasons to add a legacy letter to estate documents, according to Dr. Barry Baines, MD, founder of EthicalWill.com:
- You will learn about yourself as you reflect back on your life and look forward to your future;
- You can define which values are most important to you and what impact they have had on your life;
- Your self-reflection can open the door to forgiving others and being forgiven;
- The experience can be a spiritual exercise that provides a sense of significance and accomplishment to your life.
Ethics and a Family Owned Business
The most apparent aspect of handing over the reigns of a family-owned business to the next generation is physical. But often unstated and possibly even more important are the owner’s core ideals, for example, honesty, integrity, hard work and a passion to serve. These qualities often are the real secret to a company’s success.
When transitioning physical ownership, this is an excellent opportunity for business owners to prepare a legacy letter, complete with sage wisdom and time-honored beliefs.
As with many things in life, the most difficult aspect of putting together a legacy letter is getting started. Some honest reflection on your past, present and future life will make creating a legacy letter a meaningful and worthwhile exercise.
Since there is no specific document or prototype for legacy letters, here are some ideas to help you begin the process:
- Start with a blank piece of paper (the most open-ended approach)
- Begin with structured writing exercises (examples)
From my grandparents I learned….
From my parents I learned….
From my children I learned….
From my life’s experience I learned….
- Find a template online and tailor it to your personal situation
By articulating your values in a legacy letter, you provide an ethical map for your children, grandchildren, relatives to follow. In addition, future generations will remember you for this very meaningful gift that you have left behind.