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Final Thoughts

Kathleen M. Rehl

YOUR ESTATE PLAN specifies what you want done with your money and possessions after your death. But your life’s treasures extend beyond these material items—to your values, heritage, relationships, hopes, dreams, memories and stories. You can share some of this with family and friends through a legacy letter, sometimes called an “ethical will.”

Not long before my mother died, she wrote her legacy letter. She asked that it be read during her memorial service. Her letter began: “To you, my family, who are reading my legacy letter, please know how important you are to me and how much I love you. Life has been such a fascinating and interesting adventure. I apologize for the times I wasn’t the Mom you would have liked me to be. Please know that I really tried my best. Forgive me if I have hurt you in any way.”

Mom’s two-page letter went on to talk about what mattered most to her, emphasizing a great love for family. It was the major theme of my mother’s life: “As I’ve grown older, I continue to value family more and more. It’s so important to keep in touch by calling or writing. So much of who I am today is because of my mother and Grandma Green and Aunt Frances. They were very special ladies in many ways.”

A couple of times a year, I reread Mom’s legacy letter, written 14 years ago. Her wisdom and advice still speak to me today. How many times do you think I have revisited my mother’s legal will? Never.

I wrote my first legacy letter after my husband’s death. I’ve updated my message for family several times since, usually triggered by unique events—my son’s marriage, birth of a grandchild, a move across the country, starting a business, remarriage, retirement and the pandemic. Three years ago, expanding my legacy letter, I began writing poetry and stories, including photos from decades past. There are 62 pieces to date. I continue adding to my collection, sometimes sharing several of these with my children. They especially love the stories about themselves.

More recently, I’ve written separate legacy letters for family members, too. Below is the opening paragraph of a letter to my son: “You were my ‘miracle baby.’ For many years, I tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant. After testing, doctors said that because of fertility problems, I probably would never be able to give birth. Your father and I even considered adoption. Surprise, surprise! In the fall of 1977, you miraculously began growing in my body. I was ecstatic.”

Want to create your own legacy letter? Here are some pointers:

  • Identify topics you want to address. Subjects might include maintaining balance in life, family and friends, honesty, humor, giving, mistakes, spirituality, lessons learned, reflections, hopes, love and forgiveness.
  • Write down thoughts you want to share, even if they initially seem unconnected. Once you’re done, you can take those thoughts and bring some order to them.
  • Decide whether you want to write a single legacy letter or separate letters for family and friends.
  • Consider writing longer stories about different parts of your life, possibly illustrating them with photos.
  • Decide if you want to share your legacy letters with family and friends now or specify that they should be shared later. Keep a copy of your legacy letter or letters with your estate planning documents.

Does this all seem daunting? Check out the free booklet I created, Legacy Lifeprint Letters & Stories, which lists topics you might tackle and phrases that might spark your own thinking. You might also find inspiration in this brief video that includes elements of the legacy letters and stories I’ve created for my family and friends.

Kathleen M. Rehl is retired following a career in financial planning and an “encore career” of speaking and doing research about widows. She authored the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. Kathleen enjoys writing legacy poetry and stories, as well as assisting various nonprofits. Her previous articles were Better Than Golf and Merging Money. You can learn more at www.KathleenRehl.com.

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J. Money
J. Money
8 months ago

Excellent idea! Love it!

Langston Holland
Langston Holland
8 months ago

The ethical will is derived from Jewish tradition found throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 49, etc.). Many consider Matthew 5 to be Yeshua’s (a Jew later known as Jesus) ethical will. If you search you’ll find many examples of ethical will’s throughout history. There are even compendiums in book form on Amazon.

This is by far the most important and fun part of estate planning to me, though in my case the other stuff is pretty routine. I’m working hard on the humor part – my favorite comedian of all time was Jack Benny, who was Jewish and arranged in his will for a single rose to be delivered to his wife each day for the rest of her life. I bet she finally started liking him. 🙂

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