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Considering Your Legacy

Mural in Austin, Texas which translates to 'Death is not the end.'
Mural for Dia de los Muertos, Austin, Texas, 2011. Photo by Flickr user ltmostt, licensed under CC BY.

While financial planners devote substantial space to discussing the legal formalities of estate planning, a person’s true legacy provides those they leave behind with far more than monetary value.

“Your father’s legacy will live on through the many people whose lives he influenced.” I’ve written some version of this sentence in condolence messages to many clients and friends following the loss of a loved one. I customize all of these notes and try to empathize with what that specific person might be going through. But I can never know the exact details of someone else’s loss.

Every relationship is unique. An outsider will never fully understand; even within the relationship, each party’s perspective is different. Such relationships are where the heart of a legacy lies. While you’re still around, I recommend not only thinking about how you plan to pass on your assets, but contemplating how you’d like those you will one day leave behind to remember you. My son is just a toddler, but I’ve begun drafting a letter to him in case anything should happen to me.

There’s no right or wrong way to leave a legacy. You could consider writing different letters for specific people or groups, creating a book or recording a video. You might do something less concrete, such as living your life in a way that will inspire those around you to follow your example. Or you could create something of lasting practical or artistic value. What matters to you in a legacy will be different than what matters to me.

My clients and friends hold different religious and spiritual views, which come with a multitude of perspectives on the finality of death. But I hope that my words can provide some solace to all in their time of loss, because it should be undeniably true that we all live on in a way, through our lasting impact on others. Death changes a relationship, but the relationship does not end. As I said in a prior post, “It’s the people we help and the people who help us that give life meaning.” Each person you influence who survives you represents a way you will live on.

But memories fade with time, and those we directly influenced will also die. The Disney-Pixar movie “Coco” brought this concept to the forefront of pop culture in 2017, but the story built on deep roots in Mexican culture. The movie, which I highly recommend, takes place during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). During this holiday, it is believed that spirits of the deceased can come back to visit and celebrate with their survivors. In the movie, spirits face a final, permanent death if no living person remembers them. Much of the plot centers on the importance of remembering those who came before you, especially family. However, in “Coco” as in real life, a person’s legacy is shaped not only by their own actions, but by the actions, memories and perspectives of others. My goal is to have some control over how my legacy lives on.

Paul Kalanithi’s autobiography, “When Breath Becomes Air,” is an excellent read for many reasons. It’s also a model of how one man left a priceless legacy. The foreword of the book explains that we “got to know Paul only after his death.” The book provides the author’s perspective on life and death in general, and on his life and death in particular. His story is captivating because of the combination of his intellectual curiosity, his experience as a neurosurgeon, and his untimely death at 37 after a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. My one criticism might be that the book ends abruptly and feels unfinished – but that ending mirrors what often happens with life.

Kalanithi was able to leave behind a work that will help many people cope with loss and a serious diagnosis. The final paragraph Kalanithi wrote is indescribably emotional and an incredible message to leave to this world. However, his message was not only for strangers. Kalanithi also left behind a widow and an 8-month-old daughter, who the couple conceived following his diagnosis. The book provides Kalanithi’s daughter with a way to deeply know her father, even though he died before she was old enough to remember their time together. I cannot conceive of a better legacy for him to leave.

What steps will you take to shape your legacy?

Senior Client Service Manager Benjamin C. Sullivan, who is based in our Austin, Texas office, contributed several chapters to our firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 13, “Federal Income Tax,” and Chapter 16, “Investment Psychology.” He was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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