Your legacy project: add meaning to your estate planning & figure out what’s really important
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
You don't have to be a lawyer to know that an estate plan protects you and your family. Good advisors help you avoid huge tax bills, contested wills and other nightmare scenarios resulting from missing health care proxies, power of attorneys and so on.
But the pile of legal documents that is generated at the end of estate planning can be unsatisfying. The paperwork is confusing, full of legalese, and the process can feel impersonal. Most people want the process over fast and inexpensively. We’re sympathetic. Nothing reminds us so bleakly of our own end than those lifeless (if important) documents.
There is a better way. Being intentional about your legacy can transform your entire experience around planning for death.
Legacy adds meaning to your end-of-life wishes
Traditional estate planning is a formal process, designed to be legally precise as it relates to all aspects of asset management and final wishes. You are asked to take stock of what you have and decide about what will happen to everything when you die. You are rarely given the opportunity to talk about why you’ve made your decisions. And it’s certainly not a process you want to go through more than once (even though we all know we’re supposed to review our estate documents regularly).
Legacy planning is quite the opposite. It’s additive. It’s the process of articulating your values to bestow meaning on whatever your legacy touches. Don’t get us wrong, this can include money! The important thing is to communicate the values that informed your estate planning decisions. That’s legacy building, and it can focus on any topic that is important to you, for example:
The story of how you earned your money and what responsibilities, if any, that entails for future generations.
Sharing the values you developed over your life that guided you through good times and bad, so your children have a point of reference for their own life.
The history of the family, both its adventures and misadventures.
The reasoning about why certain items need to be preserved.
These examples, and there are many more, enrich any inheritance you leave behind. They tell the story of who you are and what’s important. In fact, understanding your own legacy before you sit down with an estate attorney can make that process go more smoothly and efficiently because you'll know what’s important to be passed down, and to whom. A clear legacy also helps give your loved ones a better understanding of what you were thinking and provide a lasting connection with you. You will have given them a record of you that is far richer than your assets alone.
What is my legacy?
How often have you read a bare-bones obituary you knew was written hastily in the wake of a loved one’s death? Or seen the phrase “…his legacy will live on in his three children and six grandchildren…” and wonder, what is his legacy? Part of the problem with legacy planning is that it’s not planned. It’s too often decided after the fact, and without guidance from the person whose legacy it is.
What’s important to you that you want passed down and preserved? When we talk about legacy we think beyond the traditional definition of inheritance and embrace the more modern meaning of the word: legacy as the lasting impact of past actions or history. Good legacy planning articulates and memorializes the stories, history, values, experiences, and lessons learned that make you who you are. It’s the colorful narrative you want to be remembered by.
Legacy is about your life, not your death. So where do you start? Get a pen and paper and ask yourself some basic questions:
What’s most important to you? Why?
What are you most proud of? Why?
What gives you the most joy? Why?
You may find quick answers range from listing attributes (a good businessman; a good mother; generous; kind; loving; and so on) to listing accomplishments (went to this school, did this for a living, was recognized for this activity). It often can sound like an obituary (don't get us wrong, that's is a great start and very practical to have!).
It takes some extra work to explore these meaningful questions in more depth. We developed a free legacy builder worksheet to help you define your personal legacy. Feel free to download it to guide you through the process.
Now what do I do?
You've done the hard work of finding your legacy. The next step is doing something with it! Your legacy can be captured in many different ways. There is no right or wrong way of embodying your legacy. The key will be finding the one that works for you. For some, a lengthy obituary may be enough. But for anyone who wants to document their legacy so that it endures for future generations, you should consider a more intentional, tangible, and curated approach.
Below are some examples of how you can preserve and pass down your legacy. To figure out what might fit best with your own personal legacy, think about what feels natural and authentic.
Some people gravitate to writing and talking in their legacy planning, which may lend itself to memoirs, legacy letters, and audio and video recordings. Others find their stories come bubbling to the surface with pictures or genealogical records, which might mean a family history book or in-depth archiving may be enriching projects. The point is to find a way that is authentic to yourself and which effectively communicates your core values.
Memoirs & autobiographies
Memoirs are a great way to leave an in-depth record of your life, your thoughts and a general discussion of what matters to you. The memoir as a genre gives the writer enormous flexibility in what they want to discuss. For some that will mean discussing only a specific part of their life, like military service, or the creation of a successful business. For others, the focus will be their personal development over time.
Some people worry their story isn’t interesting enough to warrant a memoir. That’s simply not true. Writing a memoir is not just for famous people. Everyone's stories are meaningful to those who love them. The end result will be cherished because the author is cherished by his or her family.
Writing a memoir sounds daunting. The word alone is a little intimidating. But it is absolutely within the reach of anyone who wants to give it a try. If you’re wondering what goes into writing a memoir take a look at this article, which walks you through the steps of modern book publishing.
If you want to get your life story down, in the way you want to tell it, consider the memoir.
Family history books
Family history books can be a great alternative for someone who wants to focus on a family’s entire legacy rather than one’s personal legacy. The kind of books within this category vary tremendously. They encapsulate a variety of family materials: photographs, correspondence, journals/diaries, genealogy research, short stories, artifacts, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera. These books are a compilation of different materials arranged to highlight specific aspects of the family.
Two popular books types are:
Genealogy-based narrative: Family trees are a great representation of facts. By adding a narrative for each branch of the family, or even for each person, you can document the stories of the people in your family tree. Once a few photographs are added, it becomes an instant family heirloom.
Correspondence collections: Arranging correspondence chronologically, and including photographs of the subjects and letter content, is a great way to engage readers. It provides a detailed window into the life of the writer, and into a time gone by.
Legacy letters have a long history. They are also known as ethical wills. To avoid any confusion with a legal will, which an ethical will is not, we only use the term legacy letter.
Like memoirs, legacy letters are a good choice for anyone who wants to write down what is important to them in their own words. In a way, legacy letters are like a very short memoir. They can range for a few paragraphs to many pages, it’s totally up to the writer. They can be addressed to individual loved ones or to a wider group or family.
Their content is similar to memoirs but much more condensed. The focus tends to be on the values and themes or the writer’s life, rather than on storytelling. Because of their shorter format, legacy letters are more accessible than memoirs or family history books.
Audio and video recordings
Modern times sometimes call for modern means. For anyone concerned about younger generations not wanting to read anything longer than two sentences, recordings are a great alternative.
If you are interested in the legacy letter concept, but don’t want to do it in writing, an audio or video recording of you may be the perfect solution. You will still need to think through what it is you want to say, but once that is done, it’s as simple as hitting “record.”
We all have those dreaded boxes of stuff: photos, documents, kiddie art, old diplomas, letters, souvenirs, chachkis, and more. Instead of dreading them, think of these materials as a collection and treat it as such. Collections get curated and properly stored so that they can last for others to enjoy.
Most of the items in personal collections like these were not made to last. Poor storage conditions, like damp basements or broiling/freezing attics, make matters worse. If you want others to be able to benefit from objects you have saved over time, it makes sense to sort through them, eliminate what is not worth keeping, and then storing them in archival quality materials. Like many legacy projects, archiving is less complicated that you might think.
Sharing your legacy with others
Good estate and legacy plans are communication tools. It’s a shame that most typical estate documents aren’t read until after the author dies, leaving lots of unanswered questions. There is a lot to say about early and open communication in your end-of-life planning.
With respect to legacy planning, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is to share what you have done. Hopefully, you’ve been talking with loved ones throughout the process of putting together a family book or your memoirs. But if you have been going solo on these projects, don’t forget to present them as the important documents that they are. Make it a big reveal—choose a big holiday or a regular family gathering—and turn it into a celebration (like a book launch!). Or, if that’s not your style, make it a quiet and small gathering where you can spend lots of time talking about the reasons why you choose to undertake this work, what it’s meant to you. If you wrote a legacy letter, consider sitting down with your loved one as they read it (or even read it out loud to them), in an intimate conversation.
These interactions are part of what makes legacy planning so meaningful. You will give your loved one an opportunity to ask questions (Why did you include this story? What do you mean when you say this?) and talk through their feelings. It can make your legacy work even more meaningful and concrete. It will also help with other end-of-life conversations and decisions you may need to make together.
Even if you haven’t gotten past the draft obituary stage of capturing your legacy, do not give up on communicating your legacy. A conversation may be all you need to get your points across. If you have a phone call or meeting, consider spending some time making a list of the things you want to discuss so you don’t forget to cover what’s important to you. You could even consider recording your conversation so that others can return to it in the future.
The risks of skipping legacy planning
It’s hard to describe the vacuum left behind when a loved one passes. Anyone who has lived through it knows the feeling. But ensuring your legacy is preserved is one way to lessen the blow. It gives loved ones your voice, your guidance, and a clarity of vision for them to rest on during unsettling and difficult times. And if that isn’t enough reason, keep this in mind too:
You are the only person who can tell your story the way you want it told. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
You can offer solace and guidance for the next generation even if you can no longer give it in person.
You can reduce guessing games on the decisions made in your estate planning.
You can help your loved ones understand what of your belongings can be tossed, and what should be treasured.
You can prevent conflict and build consensus among your relatives.
You can learn more about yourself in the process, which can better inform your decisions (both about your estate, but also about the rest of your life).
You’ll be more prepared to answer your estate attorney’s questions and make empowered, fully-informed estate planning decisions.
We are seeing more and more estate (and financial) planners incorporating elements of legacy planning into their technical estate planning process. We hope your financial and estate professionals have raised these questions with you. This is a terrific trend and we hope it continues.
That said, neither of us thinks it goes far enough. We think legacy needs to be prioritized. Adding legacy planning to your estate planning process isn’t just a nice extra. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, your children and future generations.
Margaret founded SprinkleTrust in 2020 to start a conversation about how we plan for death. She lost both of her parents in her twenties and saw first hand how disconnected the estate planning industry was from what really matters. She wants to inspire new ways to think, talk, and plan for death that are simpler and more connected to meaning and legacy.
Prior to SprinkleTrust, Margaret held a number of different roles, including as an advisor to law students, a corporate tax attorney, and a squash club director. Margaret earned her law and college degrees at Harvard, where she was a varsity athlete. She grew up in her great-grandparents’ home in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, and currently resides in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with her husband and three kids.
As far as Clémence is concerned, there is no better project than a family history project. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in English, and then receiving an M.A. in English from the Sorbonne in Paris, she worked in corporate settings for fifteen years. But something was missing…
She started her business to help people curate and preserve their family history materials. Whether the end product is a memoir, family history book, or an archived collection, she helps families identify what is most important to them and deliver full service solutions.