I often meet with people to discuss “estate plans” where parents and others want to set up plans for what will happen to their assets after they die. And, when they start talking about assets, the things they list and refer to are all items of property, like farms, bank accounts, or other things with monetary value. But if someone really wants to plan the legacy they will leave behind, I think it’s important to think beyond only the things we’ve accumulated that have dollar values associated with them.
Several years ago, I was sitting with my parents and siblings when the subject of their own estate plans came up. My parents started off by asking their four children what it is that they wanted, and my sister and I quickly responded that we wanted them to outlive us. Unfortunately for my sister and I, statistics say that’s unlikely to happen, but without a doubt, the most important “thing” we value in our loved ones isn’t their possessions. It is the person that we love and our relationship with them that we long to continue.
As a lawyer, I work with many people in setting up plans for what will happen to their assets after they are gone. But most estate plans fail when it comes to recognizing what is most important to us. Lawyers can easily divide up assets, split bank balances, and even pass on the occasional family farm. But, there’s nothing in the Estates & Trusts classes of law school that comes close to drawing out what makes a person, and how to pass that on. The traditional practice of estate planning focuses on the things that are (at the very least) secondary in importance to the people involved.
Think for a moment about how you’d like to be remembered after you pass from this earth. What do you want your children or grandchildren to remember about you? When your eulogy is read, what do you want people to say was important to you? If your tombstone was going to have only a few words written to describe your life, what do you want those words to be?
The plan for your legacy should start with the answers to one of those questions, because the starting place for what you leave behind is who you are today. Your values and beliefs guide you throughout your life, and they are the most important “things” you can pass on. So, shouldn’t your estate plan include that which is most important to you?