In eras past, the rebirth of the new year started in springtime. For reasons that can only be guessed at today, we begin ours during the darkest and coldest part of the year. This leads to an unusual state of mind: While contemplating what we’ve accomplished and what remains to be done, we’re surrounded by reminders of the fragility of life and our own inescapable mortality.
I think that makes December an ideal time to reflect on defining a legacy. Not a financial legacy, but the emotional kind that every client can aspire to, whether their material estate is large or small. How can they pass on to their loved ones the best of themselves–their values, thoughts, feelings, experiences, and reflections on these experiences?
Today, more and more people are creating ethical wills to “bequeath” their principles and wisdom to their families. These documents are precious gifts that can be read and re-read for generations to come. Rooted in a Jewish custom of early Biblical times, they’re not a new idea. But in this day and age, when families are often disconnected or far-flung, an ethical will can be a powerful way for clients to define the legacy that they most want to leave behind.
When might you suggest creating an ethical will, and how can you and your clients approach the task? The following situations may give you some ideas.
Q: My clients have asked me to help them draw up an ethical will for their children. We’ve made several attempts, but none of us is happy with the result so far because it sounds preachy and judgmental. How should we go about it? What are the qualities that make a good ethical will?
A: Encourage your clients to relax into this task and let themselves be creative about it. They might choose to draw pictures, write poetry, or create a personal message for each child. Or they may prefer to talk about their life experience and let their children derive their own lessons from it. An ethical will can be short or long. It may be written, spoken into a tape recorder, or videotaped, depending on each person’s most comfortable form of communication.
I’d suggest that you begin by helping your clients identify key aspects of their life story: the emotional highs and lows they’ve gone through, the indelible memories of unique experiences, the many lessons they have learned. After reflection, they may glean certain elements from this that they would like to share with their children, grandchildren, and other loved ones, or with an even wider community.
By respectfully listening to your clients and exploring their thoughts with them (“What about this experience is important to you?”), you can help them savor the process more. This in turn can often provide health and longevity benefits, because it gives deeper meaning to their lives and helps them feel more appreciated.
Some clients may resist the idea of focusing on legacies of any sort, superstitiously fearing that this attention will somehow hasten their death. Try to help them understand that coming to grips with their own life lessons can give them a sense of greater control and preparedness, with the potential to strengthen their immune system and promote better health.
It’s never too soon for your clients to start this process. People who wait too long may no longer have the ability to sum up the fullest expression of themselves. When my own father was in his 80s I urged him to tell me his life story, but by then his ability to share the richness of his wisdom had declined. If I were you, I would encourage clients to start jotting down their thoughts on an emotional legacy while they are still young, healthy, and energetic.
Q: After many years as a CEO distinguished for his integrity, my client retired and moved to live near his adult children. Since then, he’s become disappointed in some of the life choices they’ve made, and as a result has revised his estate plan to bequeath most of his assets to charity. His children have been sullen and resentful ever since he broke the news to them, which distresses him a great deal. Is there a solution I could propose?
A: I think you can help your client most by trying to lighten the heavy load of his disillusionment with his kids. I would recommend that he talk to a professional counselor. The kind of patient listening and responding that a therapist can provide may help him deal better with the disapproval, disappointment, and anger he feels at his children’s life choices.
If he won’t consider counseling, you might try to expand his thinking by asking him to tell you what his kids have done right. What does he value about each child? What are their good qualities? Once he refocuses on some of their positive aspects, he may be willing to open up a more productive dialogue with them about where their lives are going.
When the time is right in this process, you might suggest that he reconsider cutting off the kids in his estate plan. Try to help him see that it may communicate much heavier disapproval and rejection than he really intends.
I would also encourage him to record in some fashion the tests and challenges of his life and what they have meant to him. This document–the measure of himself–could become an emotional legacy for his children.
Finally, I would suggest a family meeting to talk about these issues, possibly with you and a family therapist in attendance. Your client needs to communicate his feelings about his children’s positive qualities and share with them the values, experiences, and hopes for them and their futures. The kids, in turn, need space to respond to his comments and concerns.
Ideally, a compromise will emerge in this process. I hope the father will recognize that the combination of his emotional legacy and some sort of financial support is the best way to impact his children’s future.
Q: How can you persuade someone to make a will? Whenever my client broaches the subject with his widowed mother, she says, “I don’t want to think about that.” Her family includes three children, four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. Her estate could be a disaster in the making, unless he can persuade her to get over her fear of planning for the future. What do you suggest?
A: I would encourage this client to bring his mother to your office with the excuse that he needs her help in his own planning. Explain to her that he would like to know more about the life lessons she has learned, and has asked you to help out because you’re not as emotionally involved in family matters. If she is willing, try to draw her out about her life, what advice she would have for her family, and what emotional legacy she hopes to leave them. That could allow you to suggest that an ethical will could be a gift to them, and propose simple ways she can start writing one.
You may be able to open up a fruitful discussion with the help of a recent article written by Cal Brown, a financial planner with the Monitor Group in McLean, Virginia. Brown notes that many clients “want to help their family remain harmonious and cohesive. They want their children and succeeding generations to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives; they want to cultivate their potential, to make a difference in their community.”