Posted by:  The Life and Legacy Planning Group

Every person accumulates a wealth of knowledge, experiences, and values throughout the course of a lifetime. Regardless of whether you are financially wealthy, you have a great deal to share with your loved ones. A legacy letter, sometimes also called an ethical will, is a great way to pass on the wisdom that you have acquired and can be one of the most meaningful parts of your estate plan.

What Is a Legacy Letter or an Ethical Will?
When we think about a Will, we typically mean a “Last Will and Testament,” the legally binding document that is used to pass on our property and money when we die. Because it is sometimes called a “will,” some may think that an ethical will is a legal document. Actually, it is not a legally binding document at all. Rather, it is simply a letter—or even a video recording—in which you can communicate important values, sentiments, or life lessons that you think will be of benefit to your loved ones. The term “ethical will” is misleading from that perspective; legacy letter is a more descriptive term. The content of a legacy letter is likely to vary widely from individual to individual because each one of us is unique and has had distinct life experiences that have helped mold us into who we are now.

What Might It Include?
Although everyone will have a different goal for his or her legacy letter, here are some ideas to help you think about what you might include:

  • Expressions of love for your family
  • Religious beliefs and truths you would like to impart to your loved ones
  • Life lessons learned during difficult circumstances
  • Apologies for times in your life when you feel you might have hurt others
  • Stories and traditions that you would like preserved for future generations
  • Explanation of why your property and money are divided up in a certain way
  • Revelation of a family secret
  • Blessings or hopes for your children or loved ones
  • Gratitude to God or to certain people

What It Probably Shouldn’t Include
Debbie Mycroft, author of the book Memories Worth Telling, advises people not to include judgment or criticism, but instead to leave a sweet legacy of loving words for your family. As you write your legacy letter, think about the impact it is likely to have and how you would like to be remembered when you are gone. Most people do not want to leave behind hurtful words and bad feelings for their family members and would much rather be remembered in a positive and loving way.

How to Write a Legacy Letter
You do not need to be an accomplished author to write your legacy letter. The purpose is not to impress your family or loved ones with your polished prose, but rather to convey the thoughts that you want to communicate to them as a part of your legacy. We can provide you with guidance about how to write it or, if you prefer, it can be produced as an audio or video recording.

In addition, keep in mind that your legacy letter does not need to be written in one sitting. Rather, you can add to it or revise it over time—perhaps even over the course of many years. If you start writing your legacy letter as a younger person, it is likely that there will be much more to share as you grow older.

When Should It Be Shared?
Typically, people think of a Will as a document that should be read after someone has died. Although the decision about when to share a legacy letter is up to each individual, you may choose to provide a copy to your family members or loved ones during your lifetime. Even if you later make changes to your legacy letter, it is easier for some people to convey deep feelings or difficult-to-express thoughts in writing. If it contains information or thoughts that you would like to discuss with your family, feel free to give it to them during your lifetime. It may draw your family closer together and provide opportunities for dialogue about important topics. Alternatively, some people prefer to wait until after they pass away to share their legacy letter. The decision about when to share your legacy letter is up to you, and it is likely to vary depending upon your goals in writing it.

Where Should It Be Kept?
Your legacy letter is an important part of conveying your values, beliefs, and traditions to the next generation. If you decide to share it with your family after you pass away, it should be kept with your legal papers, or its location should be mentioned in your other estate planning documents. We would be happy to retain a copy along with your Will, Living Trust, and other estate planning documents.

We Can Help Shape How You Are Remembered
Although your legacy letter is an intensely personal document, we would be happy to help you think through what information you would like to leave for your loved ones. As you consider what is most important to you, we can help you create an estate plan that addresses all aspects of the wealth you will pass down and align it with your goals and hopes for your family. Call us today to set up a meeting to discuss how best to leave your many forms of wealth to your loved ones.