Real Life | Our greater ‘wealth’ is worth bequeathing

03/09/2014 12:00 AM

02/26/2014 3:38 PM

Editor’s note: This is a new column that runs occasionally in Coasting that deals with a variety of topics related to end-of-life issues. View previous columns online at

We decree our awesome last wills and testaments and all the other commanding documents bequeathing our worldly wealth. But how about creating our other pronouncement, the welcome but neglected spiritual one that indeed can preserve and pass on even far greater “wealth”?

Our own personal “legacy letters,” known as ethical wills, transform our own lessons from living into our legacies from life, priceless gems of our unique life’s experience. Coming not from the lawyer’s office, but straight from our own minds, hearts and souls, our loving legacy letters to our loved ones and to generations to come deliver our profoundest wisdom, ideas and thought.

Ethical wills are an eloquent medium for any and every heartfelt and deep-feelings topic, for instance:

• Our own philosophies, worries, beliefs, joys, sorrows, hopes, wishes.
• Opinions about some of the people, and everything else, in our world.
• Techniques for the art of successful living.
• Advice and wishes about managing our property-will bequests.
• Divinity, faith and religion, both ours and others’.
• “If I had the chance to do[...] over again, I’d [...]” and why.
• Politics, government, social issues, the economy, past and future.
• And handing any other wisdom down to progeny, bearing our imprimatur.

If you’ve already crafted yours, I commend you, but do stay with me, because perhaps there’s an idea to make yours even better.

But, when and how to craft this masterful outpouring?

We were ready to help client Judy devise hers, but “Thanks,” she said, “but call me after the summer, in the fall.” Judy’s summer cerebral hibernation phased directly into the winter of sudden mind-crippling dementia and subsequent death. Her wisdom – lost!

As to the “how to,” here’s my formula:

Begin with several deep and incisive introspection sessions, to discover and to consider your true core thoughts. Recently I suggested this soul-searching in structuring our medical powers, and for the same reason: Isn’t it amazing how introspection can bring to mind so much more about our real selves, and how much more we can benefit from it as we shape our vital directives, our futures and our legacies?

Like some help? Some options: A charismatic and trusted confidant can prompt you with self-questions, and can assist with the decisions and the drafting.

Or, you can have a ghostwriter or a for-fee practitioner, if you prefer.

No, you won’t find charismatic soul-searchers and wordsmiths in the Yellow Pages, but perhaps your friends and your professional team members can refer you.

The Internet now offers many ethical will essays and infomercial how-tos, some for free, but most for fee.

Be honest with yourself to project the unembellished, real you. Whatever your comfortable method, let your legacy letter speak as you would – your everyday idiosyncrasies, style, your composition, grammar and spelling, and your personality.

Make it fun and entertaining to read, but profound, and only a few pages long. Discuss only your most strongly felt issues, skipping the lesser ones that will burden your readers’ patience and dilute your profundity. If your “short list” isn’t so short, how about doing a separate document for each topic?

Your legacy letter is a gift of wisdom, not stories from your life. Those belong in your equally welcome memoirs, not here. Nor is it an ego-trip opportunity either; everyone already knows just how great you are. And, sure, you’re really ticked off about your daughter-in-law’s insults, but anything harsh can characterize you as a bully and poison the entire legacy letter, destroying its sweetness and its impact. Just be discreet.

You need no lawyer, witnesses, notary, registration, no formalities. Please note, though, that anything that needs to be legally binding, “etched in stone,” or to have the force of law belongs in the formally executed legal estate plan documents, not here.

After you think you’ve done all of your thinking and deciding, allow it to “marinate” some more, then think and decide again. Then lay it all out, and feel free to fuel it with uninhibited feelings. Then edit and improve it over and over again, “marinating” and tweaking it until it’s polished and really feels like the just-right reflection of the sage and wizened you. Here’s where a really helpful right reader-editor can be valuable.

After completing your masterpiece, then what? Surely, the “legatees” should be told about it, and should understand the circumstances about when they are to “read” it. Some “legators” prefer to dialogue their ethical wills with their loved ones while still living and lucid, perhaps in connection with special events such as undergoing major surgery.

Some specify the “read” to be at death-bed time, or after death renders their words more impactful and also insulates themselves from repercussions.

Whatever its physical form, it’s at least as important as your other estate plan documents are, so place it where it deserves to be, alongside them and of course in the operators’ manual.

The dynamics of life and our habit of changing our minds compel periodic reviews and updates, as we do with our legal estate plan documents. That’s easy – simply trash it, or part of it, and write anew.

You can innovate, too: Create more than one, as many as you want. Although most are words on paper, it doesn’t have to be. Some “legators” prefer to talk to a video camera, but the recording will deteriorate over time.

My neighbor creates multiple ethical wills by periodically composing and sending read-now letters to his children whenever an inspiration strikes him. How about archiving and binding those as a family keepsake, neighbor? Further, legacy letters also can coincide with and accompany memoirs, stories from life.

Some doomed 9/11 plane passengers quickly composed and texted legacy messages to their beloveds. Anticipating approaching death, Ted Kennedy delivered one of his by speaking on the floor of the Senate about the Kennedy family’s dedication to public service, hope and idealism for mankind: “The work begins anew. The hope arises again. And the dream lives on.”

Astronaut Sally Ride placed hers in the context of her own obituary, praising and encouraging women’s achievement and purposefully “coming out” about her own lesbianism.

I think our knowledge and wisdom can be more benevolent to our loved ones and to future generations than we realize. They’ll welcome the favor, the consummate legacy, from us. They’ll be nurtured by the loving gems of vast experience that our ethical wills preserve for them, precious bequests that otherwise would be buried with our bones or scattered upon the ocean.

Enjoy creating your legacy, and rejoice in it.

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