Leaving a legacy can be summed up in this quote from William James: “The great use of life is to spend it on something that outlasts it.”

As an Elder Law Attorney, I frequently talk with my clients about their wishes for how they want to be remembered after they are gone. One plan does not fit everyone. The ways that people are remembered vary by family. How you want to be remembered is not necessarily how I might want to be remembered.

What is a legacy?

One of the ways we are remembered is through our children. We try to pass on some of our thoughts and values to them.  But, there’s always the question, “What if we don’t have children?” There are still ways in which we can be remembered.  Sometimes those are through your favorite college, religious community or fraternity.

Americans were asked “What is most important to you when leaving a legacy?”

  • 94 percent say “Having friends and family that love me.”
  • 75 percent say “Making a positive impact on society.”
  • 10 percent say “The accumulation of a lot of wealth.”

Over half the population surveyed say they want to distribute their estate while they are still alive. However, don’t give all your assets away!  You need to be able to take care of yourself and qualify for any assistance programs you may need in the future. Giving away your assets could disqualify you from Medicaid and other programs. You need to balance distributing your assets and taking care of yourself.  You could take your family on a vacation, for example, so you can see them enjoy your hard-earned money without jeopardizing your ability to take care of yourself. This leaves them with the legacy of those trip memories.

Pillars of a Legacy

There are key pillars of a legacy:

  • Values and Life Lessons
  • Instructions and Wishes
  • Personal Possessions with Emotional Value
  • Financial Assets and Real Estate

These can all be built upon to ensure we leave our legacy. A lot of this can be done through legal documents which build your legacy and fulfill it.

How do we build these pillars of legacy?

The first thing to do is easy!  We just live our lives. We leave our legacy through our character, what kind of person we are and through our convictions, passions and what we believe in. 

Keep a journal of the happenings in your life and share information about them with your family members. Share your failings and your triumphs. Share your hopes for how you want your family members to live their lives when you are gone. This Inner Wealth, your values and life lessons to pass on to others, includes your core beliefs and values, life experiences, mistakes and family traditions.

Other ways to build the pillars of legacy include:

  • Gifts by Last Will and Testament – Your legal document outlining distribution of assets and possessions.
  • Legacy Letter – This is a letter written to a loved one outlining what you want them to know. It helps you say what you may not have already said to their faces. You can talk with your attorney about how you want this to work with your legal documents to establish your legacy.
  • Ethical Will – spells out the meaning of your life, your beliefs and your life lessons. It explains your decisions and why you are distributing assets in this way. Ex.: I’m giving you these golf clubs because we spent many good hours on the course together. An Ethical Will can also explain why you are disinheriting someone.
  • Living Will – This is an advanced directive that outlines whether you want life support or not and what exactly you want in the dying process.
  • Contributions to Charity – Giving some of your assets to charity will make it clear what was important to you.

It’s important to put some thought into how you want to be remembered and what you really want your life to mean. Then, contact your attorney and put the documents in place to make that a reality.