retirement

Does Your Estate Plan Have a Gaping Hole?

Forget your wealth and possessions: Your beliefs, values and wisdom could be the most treasured assets you pass down to the ones you love. To get the ball rolling on a plan for that transfer, you could start by simply writing a letter.

“My father wrote me a lovely letter before he died. It is the most cherished thing I own,” a woman whom I was advising about passing on non-financial assets told me on the phone. I’ve heard similar statements from many others. I’ve also heard the opposite: “I wish I had taken the time to ask my mother about her life before she died,” or “It’s sad; I didn’t really know my grandparents, and they left nothing behind but a few photos.”

Oftentimes, people don’t think about the intangibles they should pass on to their heirs. Estate planning is so wrapped up in transferring financial assets that this becomes the focus. Once your financial team hands you your estate plan, you think you’ve got all your bases covered: You’ve got life insurance, a trust to avoid probate, an appointed executor and so on.

But what about your wisdom, beliefs, values, important family traditions and stories? What about passing on crucial knowledge about your business, money management or other skills? These questions bring to mind an African proverb: “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Don’t let your possessions become the only representations of your life. Whether you decide to take on a big project, like writing a memoir or producing an autobiographical documentary, or keep your documentation process simple and write a short letter detailing your principles and feelings, these representations of your thoughts, heritage and life journey are extremely valuable. They become the foundation upon which your family members build their lives.

Studies conducted at Emory University have shown that kids who know about their family’s past are more empathetic, have better coping skills and have higher self-esteem. There are other benefits to passing on your life stories as well, from decreasing depression in older adults to connecting with family and building trust to increasing the likelihood of a successful wealth transfer.

Your Three Asset Types

Your assets can be broken into three categories:

  • Character assets: Your meaningful relationships, values, health, spirituality, heritage, purpose, life experiences, talents and plans for giving.
  • Intellectual assets: Your business systems, alliances, ideas, skills, traditions, reputation and wisdom.
  • Financial assets: Your physical wealth, investments and possessions.

Financial assets are relatively easy to pass along because they are already contained in a physical form and the legal vehicles — such as trusts or foundations — used to transfer them to heirs are well established.

The challenge with character and intellectual assets is giving them the same kind of physicality that financial assets are given. Even though your mother’s love, memories of summers at your grandparents’ house and lessons you’ve learned throughout your life may be more important to you than your car, there’s still the problem of turning those feelings, thoughts and insights into something that can be passed on to others.

That’s where legacy vehicles come in.

Packaging Up Your Legacy

Legacy vehicles are the physical structures that enable you to pass on your non-financial assets. Some examples include biographies, memoirs, specialty books, letters, videos, blog posts, audio files and artwork. The significance of these items is emphasized by how artfully you capture your essence and craft it into something that is meaningful and exciting for your family to discover.

There’s a reason great literature, masterful artwork and thought-provoking film are so valued. It’s that artistic component that helps an audience interpret events and connect with emotions. Your legacy vehicles should be crafted with the same care.

You’ll want to include key legacy vehicles as a part of your estate plan and determine how they will be passed on, archived and preserved over time.

Four Tips for Creating Your Own Legacy Vehicles

1. Identify your goals.

Determine why archiving stories, defining your values and passing on wisdom are important to you. Motivations for developing a legacy typically fall into these three categories: 1) to make a greater impact on your community, 2) to pass on knowledge and wisdom to your family and 3) to create a more meaningful life and improve your connection with loved ones. Decide what motivates you and what legacy vehicles you’d like to create that will convey your non-financial assets. If you haven’t done anything to capture your legacy yet, one of the easiest, most impactful pieces to begin with is a legacy letter in which you describe your principles and feelings.

2. Take inventory.

After you’ve decided why creating a meaningful legacy matters to you, take inventory of what you’ve already got. If you want to pass on family stories or wisdom, list everything that’s available to you, such as photos and letters from your parents. Then figure out what you need to collect. You could, for example, interview your parents about their lives or write up an article about your daughter’s birth. Get specific.

3. Make a plan.

Once you know what you’ve got and what you need, now it’s time to put together a plan that details how you’re going to produce the content you need. Make sure to include how you intend to distribute it (and to whom), and how it will be archived and included as a part of your estate plan. You don’t want the book of your life’s stories lost in an attic somewhere because someone misplaced it.

4. Take the simplest step.

A legacy is one of those things that is important but rarely urgent until it’s too late. By taking proactive steps and starting with the easiest-to-create projects, your legacy will come to life. For example, let’s say you’d like to write a memoir but haven’t quite gotten around to it yet. Consider breaking this task into smaller parts, or start with something simpler, such as writing a short article about your childhood or filming a two-minute video about your wedding day. When you see the results of these smaller projects, it inspires you to create more.

About the Author

Laura A. Roser

Founder and CEO, Paragon Road

Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the leading authority in meaning legacy planning (passing on non-financial assets, such as values, wisdom and beliefs). For more information about legacy planning, visit www.paragonroad.com.

Most Popular

Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021
11 Best Healthcare Stocks for the Rest of 2021
healthcare stocks

11 Best Healthcare Stocks for the Rest of 2021

The 2020s could be the decade of healthcare stocks. Here are 10 companies and one ETF to watch not just for the remainder of this year, but well beyon…
July 13, 2021
What Is the Social Security COLA?
retirement

What Is the Social Security COLA?

For the average recipient, the 2021 monthly increase doesn't even cover a fill-up at the gas station — but it beats nothing.
July 14, 2021

Recommended

2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?
estate planning

2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every so often, it’s smart to methodically go through your estate planning documents and see if any tweaks are needed. Here’s a checklist to guide you…
July 28, 2021
33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes
retirement

33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes

Even with the federal exemption from death taxes raised, retirees should pay more attention to estate taxes and inheritance taxes levied by states.
July 26, 2021
10 Least Tax-Friendly States for Retirees
retirement

10 Least Tax-Friendly States for Retirees

When it comes to state and local taxes, retirees in these states are likely to pay more than retirees in other states.
July 26, 2021
10 Most Tax-Friendly States for Retirees
retirement

10 Most Tax-Friendly States for Retirees

If you want your retirement savings to last longer, consider moving to one of these states that impose the lowest taxes on retirees.
July 26, 2021