Passing Along Your Values Along with Your Valuables

Q. My wife and I are approaching retirement, and we are updating our estate planning documents. We read something about writing a legacy letter along with our estate planning, where we leave more than material things to our children and grandchildren – where we pass along our values as well as our valuables. As a Virginia Estate Planning Attorney, do you have any suggestions and/or questions we can ask ourselves, so we can include enough to convey who we are and what we believe to our loved ones? Thanks so much for your help!

A. As we go through life saving, investing, spending and giving away our money, it is important to stop and think about what our legacy will be. That is, what do we want to be left behind after we are no longer here?
You’ve spent nearly your entire adult life building your legacy. You may have raised a family, built a career, or even launched a business. While might not be pleasant to think about your own death, you are wise to take the time to sit down and decide what will happen to your assets AND your legacy.

An estate plan that imparts your values, using a legacy letter (often called an “ethical will”), goes beyond deciding who gets what and how much after you die. A legacy letter addresses your aspirations before you die — the things you hope to achieve in later life — and what legacy you want to leave behind besides your assets.

The easiest way to create your legacy letter is using two tools that our Firm, the Farr Law Firm, provides to all of our clients as part of all of our levels of lifetime protection planning:

1) Our proprietary Long-term Care Directive™ includes a built-in legacy letter that simplifies and expedites the writing of your legacy letter.
2) The Legacy Stories website (and accompanying mobile app) is a no-cost service that we provided to all of our clients, and all readers of our newsletter. Find out more here.

Another way to decide what to include in your legacy letter is to answer questions such as these:

  • What is the most significant thing you would like to accomplish before you die? Use this to think about how your estate could continue to make a difference after you’re gone.
  • What has given you the most sense of purpose? Many of us have accomplished a great deal during our lifetimes. You may have started a business, engaged in philanthropy, or built important family memories. Consider which aspects in your life have made the most impact on you or made you feel best. These are the things that will help define what you want to convey to your children and grandchildren.
  • Which life experiences, lessons learned, or family stories do you hope your family remembers? When you think of legacy planning, consider it more as sharing your values and life story. Perhaps there is a lesson you want to share so that the next generation doesn’t have to learn it firsthand, or maybe your grandparents told you a family story you hope is never forgotten. Writing down these important experiences in your legacy letter or sharing them via the Legacy Stories website or mobile app is a great way to connect.
  • How can you express your love and gratitude for your family and life’s accomplishments? The most important part of leaving a legacy is connecting with future generations and celebrating everything you’ve done together. Whether it’s a simple thank you, written notes, or something bigger, ask yourself in what ways you want to show appreciation for your parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren so that you can begin incorporating these acts into your life today.

Other questions may include:

  • Are there any values that are particularly important to you?
  • Are there any beliefs that are particularly important to you?
  • Is there a spiritual component to your life that is dear to you?
  • Do you want to forgive anyone?
  • Do you want anyone’s forgiveness?
  • Do you love particular things about yourself?
  • Is there a particular event that helped shape the person you became?
  • Do you have any regrets?

Other topics you might want to focus on when creating your legacy letter include recognition of your cultural heritage; respect for family traditions; and the need to contribute to the community and the world at large.

Legacy Letters in Estate Planning

Legacy letters are a way to honor the past, remember family and community, understand your own life better, and provide a lasting legacy for your family for generations to come. Legacy letters are not legally binding documents. Instead, they enable you to document and share (in writing or via an audio and/or video recording) your values, your spiritual beliefs, and your “life’s lessons.” Some may write a letter, others create a video, but regardless of the method, the first step is simply to begin thinking about what you want to share with future generations. Legacy letters  are not required as part of your Estate Planning documents.

The idea of Legacy letters is thousands of years old — back in Biblical Times, and even today in certain cultures, they’re called “ethical wills,” though this term is now somewhat antiquated. The popularity of legacy letters has increased over the years for many reasons. As baby boomers age, they’re spending time thinking about what it is they want to leave behind. With the economy sagging, it’s not always money. Also, more and more people, even those who are non-religious, are deeply spiritual or at least exploring their spirituality, and almost always come to the realization that there is much more to life than our brief earthly existence. (If you have not yet come to this conclusion in your spiritual journey, please take a look at my spiritual booklist here:

Contrary to what many people believe, legacy letters are not just for seniors. A legacy letter can be important at any age, as we all have unique treasures to share at any given time in our life. A senior has stories and a wealth of lifetime experiences that can be shared in a legacy letter; while a young person may not have the wealth of experiences, they have hopes and dreams that are also valuable to share. A young person may not have had a chance or opportunity to tell their life story to those whom they love (such as an infant or young child).

Legacy Planning in Virginia

In connection with creating your Revocable Living Trust or Living Trust Plus™ and other Estate Planning and asset protection documents, the Farr Law Firm can help you leave your loved ones with something more than money and material assets — a sense of your values. If you are a current or former client of the Farr Law Firm and would to create your own Legacy Story, you can do so for free. Create your free account at Legacy Stories courtesy of the Farr Law Firm by clicking here.

Elder Care Lawyer in Virginia

If you or members of your family have not done Incapacity Planning, Estate Planning, or Long-term Care Planning, or if a loved one is beginning to need more care than you can handle, please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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