Estate planning is about much more than the tangible elements of life insurance and trusts, or investment accounts and wills. That’s because your money and possessions are not the only representations of your life. What about your beliefs and wisdom, your personal experiences and family stories? These are your legacy. They are the most valuable assets you can pass on to your loved ones and community. So, how do you make your legacy tangible?
“The challenge with character and intellectual assets is giving them the same kind of physicality that financial assets are given,” explains Laura Roser, author of Your Meaning Legacy. “Legacy vehicles are the physical structures that enable you to pass on your non-financial assets.”
One simple way to pass on your legacy is to write a heartfelt letter. You can also create short videos or audio recordings in which you share family traditions, memories and other stories. For those feeling especially ambitious, it has become easier than ever to create biographies, memoirs and other specialty books.
Regardless of how simple or elaborate you choose to be, you’ll want to include these items in your estate plan along with instructions for how they are to be shared and preserved. Remember, too, you don’t have to wait until your death to share them.
Sharing your life stories today can benefit you and your family in multiple ways. For example, a 2006 study from Emory University shows that children who know and understand their family’s history exhibit strong self-esteem and a belief that they can influence events and outcomes in their lives. Additional benefits, according to Roser, include decreasing depression in older adults, connecting with family, and increasing the likelihood of a successful wealth transfer.
Charitable giving can also include a legacy letter, video or other vehicle that shares personal wisdom and values. Your thoughts and insights will make the gift all the more meaningful to the recipient. A college student who benefits from your scholarship will also benefit from knowing why you gave. Nonprofit employees will appreciate knowing funds to continue their work came from someone with shared beliefs and values.
Just like the drafting of important financial papers, documenting your non-financial assets should be done before it becomes urgent or too late. Why not start right now?
Ideas to Help Make Your Legacy Tangible
- Pick a photo from your past and write a description of what was happening, how you felt when it was taken.
- Record a two-minute video about your wedding day, the day your child was born or a family tradition.
- Create a “Top 10” list (of things for which you are grateful, of mistakes you’ve made and learned from, or of actions you believe create a well-lived life).
- Write a letter to your family telling them you love them and what you consider to be their greatest gifts.
Losing a loved one is never easy. To make matters worse, it’s difficult to make major financial decisions when you’re feeling overwhelmed and heartbroken. Funerals can be a significant expense. The average cost is about $10,000 according to the funeral-pricing site Parting.com. Thankfully, understanding the different expenses, knowing your options and planning ahead can help ease both the emotional and financial burden of funeral planning.
“In the best of all worlds, you or a loved one will have included funeral arrangement wishes in your estate planning,” said Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, senior vice president at Charles Schwab. “That can save a lot of guessing, and money, for the people you leave behind.”
She recommends putting your preferences in writing and giving copies to family. Since the will is often not found or read until after the funeral, putting these preferences or instructions in your will is not advisable.
Tips to Ease Financial Burden of Funeral Planning
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal funeral rule allows funeral providers to charge a basic services fee that customers have to pay. The basic services fee includes services that are common to all funerals, regardless of the specific arrangement. These include funeral planning, securing the necessary permits and copies of death certificates, preparing the notices, sheltering the remains, and coordinating the arrangements with the cemetery, crematory or other third parties.
If budget is a concern, understand that you’re not legally required to purchase optional goods or services from your funeral provider. There are other businesses that may offer a lower price for things such as transportation, flowers, caskets, urns, facilities for memorial services, and more.
The FTC has an online guide that can help you plan manage your funeral planning and budget. www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0301-funeral-costs-and-pricing-checklist.
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Typical goals in creating an estate plan are to establish a legacy and create a straightforward guide for your heirs. Depending on how long ago you created your estate plan, it’s possible your wishes or priorities may have shifted. Your vision of your legacy and your directives may no longer be clear. That ambiguity can create additional stress and expenses for your loved ones and beneficiaries during an already difficult time. It’s wise to review your plan every three to five years. That way you can address and avoid common estate planning pitfalls in the transfer of your assets. In a recent article, Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at the Schwab Center for Financial Research, shared some potential obstacles.
Review your accounts and beneficiary designations anytime there is a major change in your life, such as a birth, death or marriage in the family. Your heirs may not get the assets you intended when this information is incorrect. It may even override the wording of your will or trust in some cases.
“A revocable living trust is one way to avoid the unwieldy and costly probate process, because your assets technically belong to the trust—even while you’re still alive,” Spiegelman noted. You should create what he calls a “pour-over will” after creating and funding the trust (by changing the title of your accounts and other assets into the name of the trust), he suggested. This states that assets not otherwise devised by your will should be transferred to the trust upon your death. Finally, be sure to name a successor trustee (in case you or another original trustee cannot fulfill the duties).
Dscussing your estate plan can be uncomfortable. Still, it’s wise to communicate as much as you can to your spouse, children or other heirs while you’re still living. Your openness about your intentions can help them manage their expectations and may reduce any confusion, conflicts or legal battles down the road.
The New Year has begun and many resolutions have already been abandoned. When we decide to make changes, it’s easy to think big, look 10 steps ahead and become overwhelmed. Sometimes this causes us to give up and make no changes at all. Start small. Two small, yet often overlooked or neglected, financial planning steps everyone can and should make is to start saving and address estate planning.
My biggest suggestion for the New Year is to put your savings on autopilot. Set up automatic savings from either your payroll or your checking account (401k contributions, straight to IRA, or emergency account).
Taking that first step is important. In 2015, the median household income was $55,775 or about $28 per hour, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Just $5 a day is equivalent to about 11 minutes per day toward your personal savings. Investing 10 to 30 minutes of your work per day for yourself is a worthwhile investment. After a few months you’ll adjust to the smaller amount deposited in your checking accounts and hardly miss what you are saving.
Plan for Tomorrow
The next important step you should take is to address your estate planning. This is an uncomfortable subject for many, I know. However, after having recent family experiences with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, and now caring for a parent with ALS, I have a great appreciation for the importance of estate planning.
An easy first step is to simply review the beneficiaries listed on your IRA, 401k and life insurance policies. You can do this today in just a few minutes (check your files or look online). Are the people listed still appropriate? If not, make a change. A year ago, I found one small IRA that still listed my sisters as beneficiaries instead of my wife and children.
Always list a primary beneficiary and a contingent beneficiary. If you don’t, then your state’s intestacy laws could supersede your wishes. Next, talk with your advisor and make plans to have your will, power of attorney and possibly trust documents created or updated. Take the time to create your estate plan this year, and communicate it to others. Your loved ones will appreciate your diligence, and it can greatly simplify an already difficult time in their lives.