5 Essential Truths of Legacy

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The word legacy can mean different things to different people.


There are two primary definitions for the word. The first is this: An amount of money or property left to someone in a will. That’s the definition that most planners gravitate toward. It’s the second definition, though, that seems to be capturing the hearts and ideals of an increasing number of clients, and that is this: A thing handed down by a predecessor.


There are five essential truths about what a legacy is and how it should be viewed when it comes to estate planning.


1. Legacy is so much more than money.


Because the term legacy has been used in conjunction with finances, we too often marginalize the word and we lose its richness and meaning. Financial resources come and go, but lasting legacies are found in our passions, our actions, and our words. As Pericles said thousands of years ago, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives to others.”


2. Legacy is not neutral.


We often think of legacy solely in terms of the positive qualities that we hope to be known for or the inimitable contributions that we leave with others. But the reality is that legacies can be positive or negative. Slavery in America left us with the negative legacy of segregation and racism that continues to affect us even today. Negative family legacies can include things like abuse, addiction, or dysfunctional communication. Why is it important to realize that legacies can be positive or negative? Because of the next essential truth.


3. Legacy is not optional.


We all will leave a legacy, and likely multiple legacies. Our legacies, the things we hand down, are left to our families, our co-workers, our communities, and our country. We will all become the predecessors of the future. We cannot opt out of leaving a legacy or delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t or won’t have an impact on others. As the writer Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”


4. People are more legacy-minded today than they have been for hundreds of years.


There is less of a focus on inheritance and more of a spotlight on impact which has the potential to be an incredibly beneficial shift, especially in light of the fact that the Boomers are projected to ultimately leave upwards of $40 trillion to the next generation. The concept of legacy now involves emotional legacy, the ways we affect one another through daily interactions over the course of years. As more people consider their families of origin, and how they’ve been impacted by them, there is a greater sense of personal responsibility to right the wrongs of the past and to work toward transformation in the portions of family legacies that aren’t constructive. Social, spiritual, and emotional legacy are all intertwined with financial legacy.


5. Legacies can be changed.


The reality is that we are more than what we have been and what we have done. Our legacies are constantly shifting and changing and that continues to happen until we die. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a changing legacy is the story of a man named John. John was born in 1725 in London, England. His mother died when he was 6 years old and he was raised by a cruel stepmother while his father was away at sea. At 11, he became an apprentice on a ship, but was so disobedient he was pressed into service with the Royal Navy. He openly mocked his captain by writing obscene poems and songs. He was not only recognized as having the foulest mouth of any sailor in the British Navy, but he was credited with inventing several new curse words. He got into so many fights that he was imprisoned at sea and then eventually sold into slavery for a period of time. Despite being so mistreated as a slave, upon being set free he actually found work on a slave ship and worked in the slave trade for several years.

A few near-death experiences led him to reexamine his life and, at 33, he left sailing and began studying theology. At 48, he harkened back to his poetic roots, though this time with a different objective, and wrote a hymn based on a New Year’s Day sermon given in 1773. It is estimated that the hymn written three years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence has appeared on more than 11,000 albums and it is estimated that it is sung more than 10 million times every year. The hymn, written by the former slave trading, curse word creating miscreant John Newton, starts like this: Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.


 

David R. York is an estate planning attorney, CPA, author and speaker with more than 20 years of experience. He has worked with over 7,000 clients, including billionaires and business owners, celebrities, sports figures, and entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes.


A highly sought after speaker, he has spoken on the Ted stage, Million Dollar Roundtable, the Investment and Wealth Institute and many more.