Your Family and Your Favorite Charity: 5 Ways To Balance Your Legacy

By Jennifer Winnett Denniston
August 20, 2018

Over my years working with clients I noticed an interesting trend emerging. My clients started to wrestle with the idea of leaving a legacy, but not in the way I expected. I didn’t see people unexpectedly struggling to accept their own mortality (even though that’s hard for everyone!). I didn’t have clients who were selfishly trying hard to exhaust their assets before they died so no one else could get them. What I saw was a long line of people trying to figure out what it really meant to “leave a legacy.” 

Merriam-Webster defines a legacy as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” When we think of our financial legacy our minds often go to our families. In fact, the law of each of America’s 50 states prescribes that a deceased person’s property will be distributed to his or her descendants unless other instructions are left (like a will or trust). At this point, we are culturally programmed to believe that our financial legacy should rest with our families and anything else is somehow outside the norm. 

If this is what is expected in our culture, then why do people struggle at all? Working closely with these families as I have, I can assure you that it wasn’t because they didn’t love their families. I think this struggle was a result of the ways our lives have changed in the past two generations, and the way our hearts have opened to include other meaningful pursuits.

My own family is a great example of this cultural shift. My father comes from a family of four children. His parents raised their kids in close proximity to their large extended family. My father and his three siblings all live today within 90 minutes of their hometown, with two of them living within 10 minutes of their childhood home. But the next generation (mine) has spread out. The majority of my cousins and I left home for college or military service and eventually settled in other places. We are now living across the U.S., from New York to California, Michigan to Alabama. And, with us live the energetic brood of grandchildren my father’s generation enjoys so much. In the space of two generations our family has gone from living within 30 minutes of their furthest relative to being a five-hour flight away from each other.

The geographic space between us has created the need and room in each of our lives for other meaningful connections. While my father’s parents spent grandparenthood watching grandkids each day after school, my father and his siblings connect with their children and grandchildren through frequent video chats and extended holiday visits. We don’t love each other any less—our lives just took us in different directions.

That added space leaves a lot of time for other endeavors, and my father’s generation has filled it well. Their family is important to them, but so are the community organizations, volunteer commitments, and deeply-rooted friendships that have occupied an important role in their lives for the past 25 years.  

So how do you leave a financial legacy that balances your love for your family and the other people and things in life that mean so much to you? Here are some things to consider:

1. Prioritize, but be thorough. 

For most of us, myself included, our families are our first priority. In a lot of cases, though, we leave something on the table when we don’t acknowledge that there are other causes that are also important to us. Start by making a list of the causes you’ve consistently supported during your lifetime, both with your financial gifts and with your volunteer support. Share this list with your attorney or financial planner as you’re reviewing your estate plan and discuss if you’d like to continue that support with an estate gift. 

2. Finish what you started.

I had a client once who had generously committed to paying tuition for each of her grandchildren and expressed to me that she was worried about reaching the end of her life before her youngest grandchild had graduated college. She discovered that she could use her estate plan to make arrangements to pay the tuition for her grandchildren even after she was gone. In my work at Plan International USA, I’ve met several people who are using their estate plans to ensure that the children and projects that mean so much to them now continue to receive their support even after they’re gone. No matter what it is, talk to your advisers about your plans and wishes so they can make your estate plan work for you.

3. Remember: what you write down matters.

In the usual course of things, a family reads their loved one’s Last Will and Testament several weeks or a month after the funeral. In a very real way, that contains the last words they will hear from their loved one. Your family will see what was important to you by seeing what you put in that document—and what you left out. Whatever your priorities are, make sure they’re accurately represented in your estate plan, not just in your head or communicated verbally to someone. 

4. Talk to your family about your philanthropy.

Talk to your family about the causes that are important to you. Tell them about your volunteer work and your sponsored children, and share with them why supporting these causes is meaningful to you. When your family understands your passions, they will take more joy in seeing them expressed through your estate plan. 

5. Work with your advisers to meet everyone’s needs.

I have written before about ways to structure your estate gifts so that your family members receive a bigger inheritance and avoid paying unnecessary taxes. Make sure to share all of your wishes with your advisers to they can guide you to the most advantageous financial strategy for everyone concerned. Their job is to help you, but they can only work with the information you give them.

Creating a legacy can be overwhelming, especially when you’re balancing family and other passions. The good news is that it’s possible, and many people successfully create an estate plan that includes both. Take advantage of the resources available to you in this process, from your advisers to people like me at Plan; we’re here to help you! Together, we can give this process the time and thought it needs to beautifully honor your values and passions.