What "Legacy" Means to You and Yours: Define, Document, and Share Your Vision

Robert Balentine|Brittain Prigge
November 12, 2019
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As we noted in the first blog post in this series, conversations about wealth and legacy are naturally entwined with the concept of our mortality. Because of that, they naturally beg deep, existential questions about the heritage one wishes to leave behind.

While a legacy is something we each create naturally day in and day out in the course of living, achieving a certain level of wealth and success enables wealth creators and their families to think about legacy in a particularly aspirational manner. But many of the most financially successful families we encounter don’t pause to think about legacy in a structured way. Taking the time to formally define and communicate your legacy can be one of the most important steps you take in planning and managing your financial and family affairs. At its most essential level, a clear articulation of your legacy can help you and your heirs answer this profound question:

Who are you beyond your wealth? How do you wish to be remembered?

In working with clients, we see an array of attitudes about legacy. Some think it’s unnecessary to define because their loved ones, advisors, and business associates should “just get it” by observation and osmosis. Some see legacy as one and the same as their financial assets, while others view it more broadly. It is this broader view we actively encourage as we work with clients.

Much like a company's culture is defined by how employees describe it to their friends or neighbors, a personal legacy is similarly defined by how others describe us when we aren’t around and even well after we’re gone.

Legacy is also a form of story-making. Since the dawn of mankind, humans have told stories. What are the stories our grandchildren will tell about us to their children? It’s easy to define someone’s legacy by a tangible remembrance of who they were: Andrew Carnegie’s 1,600+ libraries, a name on a building, an endowed scholarship or chair, a name etched on a donor wall. But more difficult to define are their values and spirit: Did they keep their word? Did they quietly help others without expectation of recognition? Did they live an ethical and moral life? Did they champion certain causes for deeply personal reasons?

Some of the most powerful legacies of the ages—those created by national heroes, founders, writers, explorers, human rights activists, religious figures, and others—remind us the most powerful legacies are not about money at all.

By thinking in this creative and objective way about legacy—defining what it means to you and communicating it sooner versus later—you have a powerful opportunity to strengthen relationships and provide guide points for decisions you or your heirs may make within and beyond your lifetime.

Whether you’re already operating with a mindset of legacy (versus mere wealth) creation or have never given your legacy a serious thought, there are steps you can take to craft the story of your own legacy and communicate it to those closest to you.

Begin to formally define your unique idea of “legacy.”

We use this simple framework with clients to spark fruitful conversations. First think in present terms, asking yourself these questions:

  • What are the non-financial hallmarks of our family and our history that we would like to retain, document, and pass on to others?
  • Are there aspects of our heritage which could be modernized or reconsidered altogether?
  • How have our values evolved? Are there newer ideas or focus areas we have begun to embrace or may want to explore further in the context of legacy?
  • What inspires true happiness in me? What about those closest to me?
  • How important is it to me to be able to make an impact and measure it?
  • Are there religious or spiritual beliefs I want to underpin my definition of legacy?
  • What am I most grateful for relative to wealth as an enabler of personal growth and positive influence in my life and the lives of those around me?

Look to the future, allowing yourself to think expansively about the idea of legacy:

  • What do you want to see happen beyond the preservation of wealth or greater financial success?
  • Who are you besides your money?
  • What stories do you want future generations to tell about you?
  • What emblematic “moments that mattered” or seminal life events do you want others to recall about you?
  • What is the non-monetary imprint you wish to leave on your family and community?

Document your ideas about your legacy in the medium that suits your style. You may be a highly astute communicator yet feel squeamish or uncertain of how to go about this. That’s normal. If it feels silly or self-important to you, ask for help. Is there someone who understands you and is comfortable writing? AARP suggests this could be a future or present caregiver or trusted confidante in your life.

You can also borrow a page from business. As you likely know firsthand, businesses put forth variations of their legacy story all the time—in the form of mission-vision-values statements, operating principles, brand purpose statements, or manifestos—to guide business decisions, shape culture, demonstrate ethos, and even influence institutional investment policies. Just as your definition of legacy should ideally do, these rise above transactional considerations to capture the vision and animating spirit behind a leader or organization. Some tips which might make the process more fun and fluid for you:

  • Remember there is no one “correct” format. It can be as short as a letter or as long as a book.
  • Consider an ethical will or letter of wishes. Many templates and examples are available online and can make the process more approachable.
  • Consider including a personal history along with your future-facing wishes. Together, these can help you clarify your own thinking and illuminate you as a person for both present and future generations. You may wish to draft your own or draw from countless online templates or books, which contain prompts for capturing life histories and future wishes.
  • Don’t be afraid to be creative. A ghostwriter might be of help, and we’ve had clients go so far as to publish booklets or full books for both private and public consumption. As CNN noted in a 2017 piece, leaving a legacy video as part of a digital time capsule is another option to consider. The video can range from simple production, such as speaking unscripted into a camera or a basic motion story (using popular software which marries photos and captions), to more advanced productions that involve a small crew.
  • Be as explicit as possible. This allows you more control over your own narrative and gives your heirs more confidence in understanding and honoring your specific idea of legacy.

Share it sooner than later.

Our thinking here is simple: share it sooner than later, in your lifetime. There’s no need to wait until a major life event such as a catastrophic illness or death. Sharing it while you are living means it can be appreciated and discussed by those around you. It can be a powerful tool for creating alignment and empathy, a topic we addressed in the first post in this series. It also gives you room to revise or refine your legacy definition if you like. As far as when to share this with others, a family meeting or gathering (a topic we'll address later in this series) might present an ideal opportunity.

Regardless of how and when you choose to shape and share your idea of legacy, its substance is what matters most. Just as your wealth management moves can have long-lasting positive implications for your estate, your legacy story can be a North Star that gives you, your heirs, and your most trusted advisors a way-finding tool for years to come.

Continue to Part 3: Planning and Conducting Productive Family Meetings

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