Often the focus of estate planning begins and ends with the execution of proper documents and the titling of assets. However, a proper estate plan should not be limited to those who have passed away and the avoidance of a death tax.
Instead, its most important goal should be to provide “A Legacy for the Living.” This requires a multi-generational plan that not only prepares wealth for the family, but also prepares the family for wealth.
The incapacity or death of a family member is always a traumatic event. But the emotional turmoil and family pain is often magnified by the resulting confusion over the plans, intentions, and desires of an incapacitated or deceased family member.
In other words, it is easy to talk about legacy planning without getting to the core of what that means. David Brooks, in his fascinating book, The Road to Character, contrasts what he calls “resume virtues” with “eulogy virtues.”
As the name implies, “resume virtues” are those attributes and achievements that we want to tout in order to build up our own stature. These are successes and character traits involving things like work ethic, accountability, communication, and leadership.
Resume virtues are about accomplishments, performance, and abilities. Brooks argues that these resume virtues are what we seek after the vast majority of our lives. It is not to diminish the value of these things, but rather to say that it is easy to overemphasize their importance.
It might be cliché to say fame, fortune, and accolades are not enough. But sometimes cliches are repeated because they happen to be true. The resume virtues that we all tend to chase after the vast majority of our lives usually do not reflect what is most important to us.
Brooks says our most valued, most treasured qualities and virtues are revealed in our eulogies. When we are honoring the lives of those who have passed away, we don’t talk much about how much money they have amassed or how many promotions they received.
Instead, we talk about their empathy, compassion, and love for others. We express how they served and cared for those in need. We expound upon how they lived as fathers, mothers, children, or friends.
These “eulogy virtues” are what we tend to miss amidst the onslaught of distractions in a materialistic culture. This prioritization of the near term over the eternal leads to skewed priorities and disordered loves.
Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and former speechwriter for President Reagan, may have said it best:
“In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t. It says it adores fame and celebrity but it doesn’t, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue… That’s what it really admires. That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important. We don’t say, ‘The thing about Joe was he was rich.’ We say, if we can, ‘The thing about Joe was he took care of people.’”
The Non-Financial Inheritance
When people are asked what’s most important to them to pass on to the next generation, they say things like life lessons, family stories, and values. Further down the list are tangible financial assets, personal property, and real estate.
In other words, for a lot of people it’s the non-financial inheritance that is most important. That is what should infuse the quantitative aspects of a wealth plan with meaning and purpose. Here’s a video that explains this concept:
An important objective of legacy planning is to move from success to significance. To get started, we recommend drafting a mission statement – or what we call a Family Love Letter. We have created a Legacy Planning Questionnaire to help with that.