I have been to many funerals for clients over my 29 years in the Financial Advising business. It is a natural part of helping transition people through different stages of life. They work, they retire, and they pass on. I have been fortunate enough to have a relationship through each of those steps, and many times I am struck by the words of Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is…?” Sadly, with some folks I have known, when their friends and family walk away from the church or graveside or funeral home, memories will be all that remain for those left behind… and they fade with time. Others have spent so many of their final days making sure all of their finances were in order, and they were organized right to the end, as if they were planning a trip.
From the unique vantage point that I have, coupled with my own faith, I have an over-powering sense of what a true legacy is and how influential it can be. As a younger version of myself, I would have been quick to tell you that it is mostly about the money. Who gets what? When? And how can we best leverage your resources for maximum impact? I would have felt good about what I am doing and how I am helping because that is the way I was trained. But as you know, experience tends to give a person a different perspective, and although it has taken awhile, my view on legacy and what it means is quite different and still evolving.
One of the things that I learned is that beneficiaries of financial wealth often have their own ideas about what to do with an inheritance. A recent national study by Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research found that adults who receive an inheritance will save about half and spend, donate, or otherwise lose the rest. Yikes. Without a clear plan and clearer communication, all of the sacrifices in lifestyle that I have watched people make in their retirement years are mostly for naught once the beneficiaries get their hands on the money. I have also read that the money is spent in less than one year, although I can’t find the source for that at the moment. My unique period of time serving in this field has allowed me to witness the transfer of financial wealth from the children of the Great Depression to their Baby Boomer kids. This brings me to my next topic – Values.
To me a discussion of legacy without a discussion of values, traditions, and rituals is like a discussion of space exploration without the math; the result in either case is unfortunate. If the children of the Great Depression adequately communicated their values and the means by which they were arrived, I believe the aforementioned survey may have yielded a different result. A person’s Values are often more lasting than a person’s Valuables.
Values can be communicated in a number of ways. They can be communicated orally through stories, or more formally through what is known as an Ethical Will. A legal will disposes of assets – who gets what. An ethical will has a long standing history in the major faith traditions and is designed to impart one’s life lessons and value system to the next generations. Often this will take the form of looking back in time and discussing lessons learned from years past, looking at the present, at what is important based on those lessons, and advice, hopes, dreams, and vision for the future generations. If we knew our expiration date, we could easily take the time to write an ethical will, but we don’t. So I give you permission to write one now (I can show you examples and help with a structure or framework), and to re-write it sometime in the future if things change. Imagine the gift that this can be, a treasure for great-grandchildren and beyond.
If you are not the writing type or the thought of this project is daunting, then I would encourage you to become a teller of stories. Your story. Ask the kids to stay at the Thanksgiving table for an extra 15 minutes while you captivate their attention with stories of your own childhood. As much as they put up a fight or make excuses, they will be glad they stuck around. I remember my own childhood sitting around large family meals gleaning what I could from my grandparents. This was often difficult, as many times they spoke only in Romanian, but even that tradition is long lasting with me and reminds me that only one generation ago my family lived very humbly in the old country. That connection to the past helps to keep me grounded to this day. Unless I am able to communicate that to my own children, it will likely disappear with me. I still keep the original of the sheet my aunt prepared for my grandfather that contained all of the numerals 1 to 100 and their English translation as a reminder of who I am. To anyone else this would be a yellowed sheet of things we already know; to me it represents so much more.