“Harry” complained to me recently while reading over his estate planning documents. “These seem so…cold….so….’legal’…” he said slowly, searching for the right words. “I understand that these documents have to use this legal language so that my estate gets the benefits of the law, but I’m having a hard time knowing that these will be my last words that I communicate to my family.”
I understood Harry completely. Who wants their last words to read “I instruct my trustee to distribute a fraction of my estate, the numerator of which is comprised of the largest amount that would not be taxable…blah blah blah?”
I am sure that no one wants that.
Today, I’m going to propose that you consider an alternative. This alternative can be made into a very meaningful and fun exercise.
What I’m referring to is to leave a separate letter – apart from your will – for each of your most important loved ones.
This letter shouldn’t be about “who gets what” from your estate – that’s for your will and trust. Besides, you don’t want to inadvertently say anything that might contradict what’s in your legal documents that could lead to beneficiary disputes.
Instead – what I’m talking about here – is for you to create something really special. Too often we don’t share our true emotions with those closest to us. We often tell our spouses that we love them, but we don’t tell them why we love them. We might tell our children that we are proud of them, but we don’t tell them why we are proud of them. We may truly admire something about a lifelong friend, but we are often afraid to open up and tell them what we’ve admired about them – or even that we harbored admiration to begin with.
How great would it be if we shared all of those thoughts with those closest to us? So I propose that you do just that. Write a letter and tell our loved ones how much they’ve meant to us. Then have that letter kept with your will – to be opened concurrently.
I thought that I’d suggest a few basic thoughts for those who might not be as comfortable putting words on paper:
Keep it Positive – Particularly when you are writing a letter that you don’t intend for a loved one to receive until after you have departed this earth, it’s a good idea to keep it positive. Everyone is subject to valid criticisms for our faults and unfulfilled expectations. Don’t use this letter as a means to review those. These are your last words. Don’t you want them to leave them with a smile? But do be sincere. Don’t heap praise where praise really isn’t believable. Everyone has positive qualities. Talk about those here.
Write Separate Letters – Don’t combine everything into one letter. Write one for your spouse. Another to each child or other loved one. That way your letter can be very personal for that particular person.
Open a Spousal Letter with How You Fell in Love – You might open a letter to your spouse recalling the first time that you met, and how you knew that you were in love. Talk about the qualities that she or he possessed and how those qualities grew better over time.
Recall Your Child’s Early Years – For your children you might open a letter about their early years – how much you cherished having them in your life. There may have been certain traits, characteristics or events that foreshadowed later successes they achieved. Talk about those – and how you noticed them.
Tell Them Why – Don’t be shy telling your loved ones the “whys.” Why you are so in love. Why you are so proud. Why you smile when you think about them. With kids it might even be fun to tell them why you wanted to have kids in the first place, and how different it was raising them as opposed to what you expected before you ever had kids.
Review Fun Family Times or Accomplishments – Every relationship has its ups and downs. Many of the ups can be chronicled as happening during a certain event – a vacation – a sporting event – a holiday gathering. While everyone might have already grown tired hearing the same stories around the dinner table over and over – you might be able to provide a twist – relay why that story meant so much to you – and how it demonstrates your loved one’s special qualities.
Regrets – Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to create a list of regrets. But you might have some that would have a positive spin. “I regret that I didn’t tell you this earlier, and hope that by telling you this now, you’ll know how much you meant to me,” for example. You may regret certain incidents and want to apologize for them. If this is the case, do your best to keep it concise while not trying to place blame or guilt on your loved one.
Your Hopes and Dreams – Talk about your hopes and dreams for your loved one – particularly if they are young. If they aren’t young anymore, you can talk about how proud you are of their accomplishments. Maybe they’ve raised great kids of their own. Perhaps they’ve overcome a lot of obstacles and you’ve noticed how far they’ve come. That’s great stuff. Let them know it.
Wind it Up- Make sure that you leave them with a warm statement. I saw one letter where a father told each of his children that he wanted them to know that he believed in an afterlife, and although his children may no longer be able to touch him or hear him, they could talk to him and he would be there to listen. He told them that he trusted their judgment, and he hoped that they would live the rest of their life with confidence that everything happens for a reason. It struck me as a powerful confirmation of his love, devotion and admiration.
I hope that this column helped provide the start of an outline if you should feel this important to do for your loved ones. I’m working on a letter for my wife and for each of my children, which I intend to update as the years go by. I’m hopeful that these writings will mean more to them than anything material that I leave behind.
©2014 Craig R. Hersch