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How to leave a legacy beyond finances

Giving back after you’re gone can be more than just financial contributions to your heirs. Here’s how to pass on your values, traditions, memories and more

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Your legacy isn’t necessarily about leaving money to your loved ones.

Far from it.

Take Daniel Knopp’s story, for example. He and his late wife, Sarah, planned to take a road trip together for six months between the time he left the Air Force and transitioned into a financial planning career. Unfortunately, Sarah became ill and went into hospice.

“We realized that the trip wasn’t going to happen,” Knopp says. “But [Sarah] felt so strongly about me going, she encouraged me to go on my own.”

Knopp bought an RV after Sarah died and traveled for about six months, visiting family and mutual friends along the way. What Knopp took from this experience was that his late wife didn’t want him to sacrifice joint dreams and goals just because she wasn’t going to be there anymore.

During his trip, Knopp was able to collectively grieve because many friends and family weren’t able to be there with Sarah for her final days. He says, “We’d spend happy times sharing happy memories about Sarah. It was such a unique opportunity and happenstance, and we were all grateful for it.”

Like it or not, you’re going to leave a legacy. But, as Knopp’s story illustrates, that legacy doesn’t have to be just an inheritance left to loved ones. Think of it as a combination of the way you’ve lived your life and the impact it has had on those around you. Leaving a legacy beyond financial contributions can be an act of love.

Even if your legacy won’t seem as significant as Knopp’s trip across the U.S., even small gestures can have an impact on future generations. Here are some ideas to think about no matter your stage in life.

In this article:

Define your legacy

Your legacy is your need and desire to be remembered for your contributions to the world. It’s also about how you want to let others know how much you love and appreciate them long after you’re gone.

All this is to say that if you take the time to plan for your legacy, the ones you leave behind will know exactly how you feel, what you believe and what traditions you want to share.

Lyndsay Green, sociologist and author of The Well Lived-Life: Live With Purpose and Be Remembered, suggests that we underestimate the impact we have as humans and that we’ll be leaving a legacy no matter what.

“Our legacy is formed by two components. The first is the way we live our lives,” she says. “The second is combined with the representation or preparations we’re making for our death.”

These preparations can include estate planning documents, but the non-financial aspect of legacy can consist of elements such as allocating our items and writing other types of documents to pass on parts of ourselves.

Some of the following ideas are simple but can have a profound impact on your legacy.

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Write an ethical will

Unlike a legal will, which is a tool for transferring your assets and property, an ethical will is designed to pass on things such as guiding principles, memories, spiritual values and wishes for your family’s future. (Eligible Haven Term policyholders have access to Haven Life Plus, which includes a will and a year of unlimited updates at no cost from Trust & Will.)

Think of an ethical will as a formalized way to pass on your life stories and lessons learned. It’s written in a way that focuses on the ethical aspects of your legacy. Examples include stories about important events in your life, causes you care about and even mementos (like photos) you want to pass on to your heirs. (You can store many of those mementos digitally on data storage services, such as LifeSite.)

Access to Trust & Will and LifeSite are available as part of the Haven Life Plus rider, included in the Haven Term life insurance policy. They are also available independently of the Haven Life Plus rider, as a paid service.

Nada Frazier, a death doula and founder of The Sacred Servant based in Jacksonville, Fla., says that an ethical will can be a powerful document even though it’s not legally binding. You can craft one on your own or elicit the services of someone such as Frazier, who assists you with your final preparations to help you articulate what you want to say.

“You can do something as simple as opening your notes app on your smartphone or carry around a notebook and pen with you,” she says. “Start by writing down anything that inspires you and use that to craft your ethical will.”

She also suggests that an ethical will doesn’t have to be a written document. She’s known clients who have used their phones or carried around a tape recorder to record their thoughts for their loved ones. If you’re more tech savvy, video can work as well.

Frazier created an email account specifically for her children a few years ago and writes occasional emails to her children. She’s also forwarded links to articles she thought were interesting or would be helpful for her daughters. When Fraizer dies, her daughters will then be instructed to log in with a password she set.

“It’s something quick and easy, so I’m not hung up on how much time it takes,” she says.

As for where to store your ethical will, it can be with anyone you trust, such as a family member, a good friend, or the executor of your legal will. You can even house your documents in a safe deposit box at the bank and leave the key with someone or the password if it’s an electronic item. (Eligible Haven Term policyholders can enjoy no-cost secure online document storage from LifeSite via the Haven Plus bonus rider.)

Pass on your skills

Teaching skills can be a great way to pass on a legacy. Perhaps you’re one of the last people to carve in a certain type of artistic style or you’re known for your well-crafted novels. It can even be as simple as showing your children and grandchildren (if you have them) how to prepare a meal.

Green interviewed a woman for her book — a middle-aged woman dying of brain cancer — who wanted one of her legacies to be to teach her young adult sons to prepare a multi-course Thanksgiving dinner.

“Luckily, she had enough time, and she had helped them with a Christmas meal, too,” Green says. “It was a very conscious choice of [the sons] needing to be able to have this skill to celebrate family life, with whomever they’ll share their future.”

Even something as simple as family recipes can be a great way to pass on your legacy. For example, in my mother-in-law’s community, all members contributed one of their most well-known or favorite recipes for a book they self-published. Even after these community members passed, others were able to continue cooking their dishes.

Reconcile and strengthen relationships

Both Frazier and Green suggest that asking for or granting forgiveness can be a great way to alleviate the suffering of others. To do so, you can call someone up and have a conversation. If this feels too awkward, write a letter or record yourself talking.

Another way to pass on your legacy is to take the time to tell others how you felt about them. You also could pass on memories or help others emotionally cope once you pass by giving away your possessions to them.

Fraizer recalls being close with her grandmother and treasures the quilt she made. “You bet if there’s a fire at my house, one of the first things I would grab is my nana’s quilt,” she says.

Green recalls one of the most touching stories she encountered was a woman who gave everyone in her family quilts she made. During her funeral, the young men in the family who carried her casket wrapped themselves in the quilts they were given.

“These young men can now talk about these quilts and this story will be part of it,” she says. “It’s also a powerful way to help someone grieve, to express their feelings using a tangible object.”

Ask yourself how you want to be remembered

Building your legacy isn’t about how much money you pass on or how big of a life you’ve lived. Instead, it’s understanding the impact you have on those around you and finding a way to use this understanding to live a better life.

For Knopp, going through the grieving process helped him refine his financial planning practice. He guides clients to focus on life goals (legacy is a part of it). Fraizer reaches out to the community through her services and community events, where she invites anyone to come and have open and honest discussions about life and death.

Perhaps Green says it best: “It’s about accepting responsibility that you’re important to people. Not taking our life and relationships seriously while we’re alive is doing a disservice to yourself and the people you have a connection with.”

What will your legacy say about you?

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About Sarah Li Cain

Read more by Sarah Li Cain

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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