Discuss Legacy Planning Before It's Too Late

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This week Gail shares personal lessons learned on planning for the loss of a loved one.

Dear Friends,

I am sharing something personal with you this week.

My dad died in January of this year. He would have been 94 this month. He had not been sick. In fact, two months prior to his death his doctor declared he had the body of a 75-year-old.

I believe my dad died because he wanted to. For reasons that pertain to my family, my dad no longer found joy in life. Therefore, he simply stopped eating and drinking. These were the remaining two activities he had any control over.

At my brother's insistence, my mother reluctantly agreed to an informal memorial service. Three out of four of Dad's children, including me, attended.

Admittedly, the service was hastily assembled. But my brother and I decided it needed to reflect Dad's life, which had included more than 40 years as an usher at Yankee Stadium. He had seen it all: Babe Ruth, the magical Yankees of the Mantle-Maris-Berra eras, below-zero Giants' football games — you name it.

“The Ballpark," as we referred to it, was a second job, but it had been Dad's refuge. Those who made up the team of ushers were Dad's “Band of Brothers." He had out-lived them all.

So in addition to the usual hymns, I suggested we sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at his small memorial service. We also displayed mementos, such as the uniforms Dad had worn as an usher and a 1987 photo of the Yankee Stadium scoreboard wishing Dad a happy 75th birthday.

I believe in my heart that Dad would have appreciated the “ballpark" touch. But, I'm sure we could have done more, much more, to pay homage to a life of 93 years. For instance, we could have included things about his childhood and his parents. It was all so rushed, we just didn't think of it.

If you care about your loved ones, if you care about how you are remembered, this is just one of several things you should discuss before it's too late. The problem is, few people do.

Last year, a landmark survey by global insurance giant Allianz found that Baby Boomers and their parents feel that the non-financial things an individual leaves behind — values, morality, faith — are ten times more important to them than who gets the IRA or the stocks.

And while both Boomers and their parents claim they discuss “legacy planning," in fact, if they talk at all, it mostly centers on … (you guessed it) … who gets the IRA or the stocks. Less than a third cover the really important issues such as how someone wants to be remembered, the lessons they hope they have instilled in their children and grandchildren, how their treasured pet is to be taken care of and who should receive their most personal belongings.

Mark Colgan knows first-hand the grief and confusion that overwhelm you when you lose a loved one. He learned at the age of 31, after the sudden death of his wife, Joanne. In the midst of coming to grips with his loss, like all surviving spouses, Colgan was also required to make endless “practical" decisions about the type of coffin, which flowers to use, having an obituary written and published, notifying Social Security and creditors, and so forth.

Now he's launched a Web site for the living.

The site, www.planyourlegacy.com, provides a template to communicate your final wishes to those who survive you. The centerpiece is a “Legacy Journal." This doesn't replace a will or trust; it's meant to provide loved ones with information not typically found in either of these documents, such as:

-Would you like an obituary and who would you like to write it?
-Do you have an executable will and where can it be found?
-Your medical history.
-Your military service history.
-Your employment history.
-How would you like your clothing and other personal effect distributed or donated?
-Who are your key advisors -- legal, financial, medical?
-The “Household Technicians" you use -- the mechanic you trust with your car, the plumber, the landscape company.
-How your pets should be taken care of and the names of your vet and petsitters.
-Who should be notified of your death?
-The music and readings you would like at your funeral.

By providing this personal and practical information, Colgan says the Legacy Journal gives survivors “room to grieve, heal, and celebrate the deceased's life" instead of being burdened with all the mundane details that need to be decided at this traumatic time. In other words, would you rather have your kids squabbling over which hymn was mom's “favorite," or fondly remembering the good times the family shared?

Colgan's Web site isn't unique. I found some others that are operative (and two more that said they were undergoing extensive upgrading and invited me to check back at a later date). At www.privatematters.com, a Canadian-based Web site, you create a “Choices and Wishes" document that is similar to, but less in-depth than the Legacy Journal. The author also promises to “show you how to use a lawyer-approved process to make it a binding addition to your will [a codicil]." My concern is whether the same process that works in Canada works in the U.S.

If you can get comfortable with the level of security provided (read all about it at each Web site) having your documents live on the Web site's servers offers some advantages, including the ability to take benefit from any upgrades. For a membership fee, both sites allow you unlimited access to your files so you can update them at anytime. You can also print out a hard copy. And you designate at least two “administrators" who will receive access to your information after you die.

Another nice feature is that both Plan Your Legacy and Private Matters allow you to create a “Memorial" where you can upload photos, video clips, and other mementos of your life. In a sense, this becomes a virtual scrapbook documenting your life story which can be shared with family members and friends.

Others can visit this and, for a fee, add their own pictures and comments after your death. (“I'll never forget grandma's cinnamon apple crisp." “Uncle Elmo never lost a game of Texas Hold ‘em. To this day, I suspect he marked the cards somehow.")

The Web sites also inform visitors about whether you have designated a charity for those wishing to make a donation in your name. Private Matters collects this money and sends it to one of eleven charities, six of which are Canadian; Plan Your Legacy takes a different approach and provides a link that takes you to the charity's Web site so you can make a direct donation.

There's also a section where you can leave messages to be read by specific individuals after you die. Each site allows you to time the delivery of these messages (these vary). The “Memorable Messages" section on the Plan Your Legacy site allows you to “craft a last conversation with someone," says Colgan. Private Matters describes this section as “a precious chance to say all the things you always meant to." (Please be nice.)

One thing that makes Plan Your Legacy unique is the support section for those who survive you. Colgan, who has also authored “The Survivor Assistance Handbook," says this is designed to provide answers to practical questions such as “How do I get out of the car lease?" ... “How do I apply for veterans benefits?"

Baby Boomers have re-written many of the social “rules" as they have grown up. As their numbers swell the ranks of those approaching retirement, their influence is already starting to change the ideas we have typically had about this phase of life (expect to hear the phrase “phased retirement" more and more, for instance). Colgan predicts this generation will also re-define dying to include “what kind of legacy they want to leave to their families, their friends, and even the world."

It's something to think about.


If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: yourmoneymatters@gmail.com, along with your name and phone number.