When many of us hear the term “legacy”, our minds often drift to trust funds and sports cars, vacation homes and priceless antiques. Equally so, “legacy planning” sounds like the domain of the ultra-rich, which most of us are not and will never be.
But legacies are more than just items of high financial value. Each of us has a legacy to pass on to our children and future descendants, and gathering that legacy together before passing from this Earth is not just a responsibility we owe our loved ones, but one of the greatest gifts we can bestow upon them as well.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines legacy as “Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor from the past.” Not one mention of Rolls-Royces or condos in Hawaii in there, was there?
Legacies are defined by the person who creates them, and while wills and estate planning are very much a part of legacy planning, they often pale in comparison to the wealth of knowledge that can be transferred via photographs, memories, and life lessons learned and shared.
Consider sharing your memories of life events, special occasions, and lessons learned for future generations by writing them down – either in a journal or on a computer. Word processors are a snap to learn, even if you are a computer novice, and the Internet offers many resources to store your writing safely and securely, so you never have to worry about losing your documents in a fire, robbery, or because of a computer failure or getting broken.
If the written word isn't your thing, have no fear. You can also put your words into an audio file, and save it to a computer or onto tapes or CDs for future generations' enjoyment. You might think your life story is mundane, but If you have old photos, the Internet and personal computers are also a great way to not only share these with your loved ones, but make sure they are not lost to decay, wear, sun/light damage, or fire, you can easily use a scanner or go to a store like Kinko's or FedEx and have your photos scanned and placed on a CD or DVD.
Alternatively, you can scan them yourself and upload them to an Internet storage site such as Flickr.com or Google Drive, where you can keep them, add cutlines, and share and send them to anyone you wish who has an email address.
Using the Internet to preserve your legacy can be a wise choice because it largely prevents your loved ones from having to search your home or shuffle through endless paperwork to find the important documents necessary to honoring your final wishes and dispersing your estate as you see fit.
There are a number of new legacy solutions popping up online that offer to act as your “vault” for your most important requests and wishes, only allowing access to those people whose names you supply the company, thus significantly reducing potential conflict among loved ones or interested third parties who might erroneously believe they are entitled to particular items from your estate.
Having your important documents in a storage facility such as this also protects you from the lackadaisical but quite common thought of, “My spouse knows where everything is for when I die.” That might be true, but what if the unexpected happens and your spouse dies at the same time as you – in an accident, fire, or some other tragedy?
Leaving our children to grieve our deaths is one of the most painful thoughts a person can have, but doing so with the knowledge that that grief process will be interrupted by forcing them to try and compile legal and financial documents at the same time is something no parent would wish upon a loved one.
Here are 6 ways to ensure your legacy planning is in place to ease the burden on your family.
Review your decisions and choices every 3-5 years.
Laws changes, taxes change, and your situation changes too. Perhaps your children have made you a grandparent since the last time you updated your will. Make sure everything is up to date.
Lots of people gift their property later in life or upon their death. If you owned said property before you got married, your state might treat it differently than if it was purchased as “community property.”
No matter what your will says, the people you've put as your beneficiaries on bank accounts, retirement plans, and insurance policies take precedent from a legal standpoint. Make sure that the names on the beneficiaries match what you're putting in your will and make sure to update both afterlife changes in your family such as marriages, divorces, or the birth of children or grandchildren.
Health care directives and living wills.
Things are usually not going to play out perfectly for you in old age, or even before old age. Accidents, illnesses, and other events can put you in the precarious position of not being functional enough to tell doctors, lawyers, or beneficiaries what your wishes are. That can put your family through long drawn out processes involving the government and the courts. Don't wait until you feel old to make this happen.
Power of Attorney.
When tough decisions have to be made about your life, it can be agonizing to pin those choices on a family member or friend, particularly one with a powerful emotional connection to you. Using an attorney can give you the power of employing someone who will make logical decisions based on the letter of the law and your pre-written choices.
In an age where everyone tells you not to write down your passwords, it's probably a good idea to write them down and put them in a wall safe somewhere. So many of our services have gone paperless that it can be very tough to keep track of all of them. If you don't have a literal vault, try one of the Internet-based ones mentioned above to secure your online resources.
Remember, a legacy does not have to a house in the hills or a private island. The truest legacy we can give our children is the gift of who we are and what life meant to us.