Practice Management

Passing on more than just money

Help your clients preserve values and tell life stories through legacy letters to loved ones

Apr 26, 2009 @ 12:01 am

By Kathleen M. Rehl

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When my mom died, she left a few humble bequests: a checking account and several certificates of deposit, her wedding ring and personal items that didn't have monetary value.

I used my small inheritance for special home improvement projects and for a family reunion. I still have Mom's ring and picture albums, but most of the other things are gone.

Talking with my brother, he commented that he has also spent nearly all his bequest money.

Although the inherited cash is already gone, Mom's spirit will be with us forever. That is partly because she wrote a legacy letter shortly before her death, addressed to her children and grandchildren.

Mom's letter began, "Please know how important you are to me and how much I love you. Life has been such a fascinating and interesting adventure, with you, my family, being a big part of this journey."

Mom continued by writing about her values, the lessons life taught her, her beliefs and her deep love for each family member.

What she experienced and learned during her 84 years of life was much more valuable than the material stuff she left behind.

Periodically, I have reread Mom's legacy letter, and it continues to bless me each time.

Over the years, I have helped my clients write their own legacy letters, which some also refer to as ethical wills.

Consider Marsha's situation.

She came to me as a fairly new widow, needing to update her legal estate documents. We worked with Marsha's attorney to ensure that her assets could be distributed according to her wishes.

Indeed, before all the paperwork was completed, Marsha had gone through a process of clearly defining what she wanted to accomplish and which people and charitable organizations would benefit from her estate.

She felt good that all her financial papers were in order, but said, "It wasn't really much fun to go through all of this. When I'm gone and my things are divided up, there won't be much to help my family remember who I really am."

In other words, Marsha knew that traditional estate planning is important, but she wanted more than just a focus on the property and financial assets she had accumulated.

That became the perfect opportunity to invite her to consider writing a legacy letter to her family. I showed Marsha examples of ethical wills written by others, directing her to ethicalwill.com, the website of Barry K. Baines, author of "Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper" (Da Capo Press, 2006).

I also shared a technique I developed to help clients get started writing their legacy letters using a "check a box" approach.

I have introduced this ethical-will concept to most of my clients, and many have decided to write their letters. Some ask for more guidance from me, while others do it on their own after they understand the concept.

Several clients have given me copies of their completed legacy letters, sharing what they have written. Each project is different, and every one deeply reflects the author.

Several clients have commented that this was a profound experience for them, and they were grateful for my encouragement to do this project.

I believe that clarifying and communicating the meaning of one's life though a legacy letter isn't only important for loved ones but is also a gift for the writer. In reflecting upon the past and recording thoughts on paper, writers learn about themselves, ponder what they stand for and have the opportunity to articulate that which is closest to their hearts.

There may be transition times when it is especially beneficial to encourage the writing of legacy letters: marriage, birth of a grandchild, the end-of-life stage, a change of career, retirement, the death of a spouse or a health challenge.

Clients might find that writing their legacy letters also helps them manage these life transitions better.

If you decide to add this ethical-will component to your estate planning, I encourage you to write your own legacy letter first. It will help you understand the process better.

I wrote my own ethical will several years ago. Each January, I review my legacy letter and then add a few update paragraphs.

Several clients have reported that they also have extended their legacy letters periodically.

Creating a valuable record of information and messages that won't be lost is a powerful exercise.

Kathleen M. Rehl, founder of Land O'Lakes, Fla.-based Rehl Financial Advisors, is a member of the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors Inc. of Highland, Mich.

For archived columns, go to investmentnews.com/practicemanagement.

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