This month we celebrate Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Time for us to reflect on the people we love and the people we remember. Not that you need the reminder. . . gotta just love Hallmark!
I remember asking a client, as part of an estate planning conversation, “How do you want to be remembered?” He and his wife sat there at my desk and gave me the “deer in the headlights” stare. They were speechless. Oops! Too difficult a question I suppose, or I caught them off guard.
But, think about it. The answer to the question above is not in their will or trust documents drafted by an estate attorney. At their passing, the couple’s heirs will sit in on a reading of the will. They will inherit some cash, a house or something. Likely, they will grieve and mourn the loss of their benefactor. They may even reflect back on times spent together, special moments, cherished experiences, and heart-felt love—and they may even feel very depressed.
Is that it? Is there anything missing? Could there be something more? Better than the reading of a will and receiving an inheritance?
Here’s an idea. . . how about writing a letter to go with your will? It could be a heartfelt expression of what truly matters most in your life. Doing this would allow you to pass on more than your material assets. It would be a treasured, tangible legacy of values, life lessons, and words of appreciation and encouragement to your family and others. Together, this letter and your will can provide the complete legacy transfer of both values and valuables.
Unlike a will or trust, this letter—also known as an ethical will—is designed to give heirs and future generations a glimpse into the values, principles, life lessons, and beliefs that inspired and motivated the giver.
Some people draft such a letter to be disclosed at their passing, while others choose to share it while they are very much alive in an effort to create a conversation around its contents. While most ethical wills take the form of a written document, some individuals choose to produce printed books, albums, audio messages or even video recordings.
The reality is that most people of even modest wealth think about their legacy. Here is that question again: “How do you want to be remembered?” This is important, because…? Without an appreciation of the work and wisdom that went into building the wealth they inherit, your heirs may have a harder time retaining that legacy.
The hardest part about an ethical will is starting it. To help you, I’ve compiled a list of questions which could be answered and formatted into such a letter. If you’d like a copy of these sample questions, just send me an e-mail request. I’ll bet you can think of at least one person from whom you would love to have received one of these letters, right? From your Mom? Your Dad? Perhaps your favorite Aunt or Uncle? How about that war hero veteran relative of yours?
Speaking of legacy…I read some biographical information about Montgomery Ward that made me stop and think. This is the piece I paused over: “The Wards struggled to make ends meet, so at 14, Monty apprenticed at a barrel factory earning 25 cents (worth $7 now) a day, working 14-hour days, six days a week.” When was the last time you heard of someone working this hard? This was in 1857, but does that matter? For those young readers among you, there was once a chain of department stores across the country named Montgomery Ward. Monty Ward started out with a mail-order business in 1872.
In order to get customers to buy products sight unseen, he provided an ironclad guarantee: he’d take back anything customers weren’t happy with and refund their money in full. His was the first mail order business to do that. Initially, his “catalog” was just a sheet of text describing 163 items. Ward bulked up his catalog to 240 pages with 10,000 items by 1883. His Wish Book, as it was nicknamed, became the only book other than the Bible to be found in many homes and schools.
By the time he died, in 1913, Montgomery Ward & Co. had annual revenue of $40 million a year (almost a billion dollars in today’s money). This laid the foundation for the launch of a chain of stores in 1926. You may recall the one here in Santa Rosa. Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. were the main places my mom would take us kids for Christmas shopping. And, of course, we had their catalogs in our home for easy reference. Thanks mom, for all the wonderful memories.