BL 003: How to Leave a Lasting Legacy Beyond Your Physical Assets

By September 15, 2014 A Beautiful Life No Comments
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A BEAUTIFUL LIFE LESSON 3:

How to Leave a Lasting Legacy Beyond Your Physical Assets

In the final episode of this trilogy on wills for parents, we take you deeper into the meaning behind this whole process.  Most often the focus with wills is on physical assets and how they get passed down.  Our approach, however, is that the process is more than that.  We try to capture the meaning behind the decisions you make so that your children and beneficiaries will understand and appreciate your insights, and be guided by them.

In this 17-minute episode, you will learn:

What is often lacking in the will planning process
The three stages of grief a child goes through when a parent dies
Three short term actions that affect long term recovery
How a proper will can help a child through recovery and be guided by your memory
Our approach to the will planning process

Listen to or read Lesson No. 3 below…

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Lesson Transcript (below)

Introduction

Imagine this: trees planted by streams of flowing water. The roots underneath the trees have an ample and continuous flow of fresh water, allowing those roots to grow deeper and stronger.  Those strong and deep roots bear plump and ripe fruit in its season.  Its leaves grow large and in full bloom.  Isn’t this the kind of life we want to live, and the legacy we want to leave behind?

Here is the true secret to the will or estate planning process, when done properly: the actual legal documents – as important as they are – are not really the focus.  They are the end result, or rather, the by-product of a more thorough and meaningful process and journey; a journey that lets you leave a lasting legacy beyond your physical assets if you are called to leave this earth.

Thank you for joining me on “A Beautiful Life: Building a Lasting Legacy for Your Family”.  This is Simon Park, and in this third and final installment of the trilogy on wills, I hope to convey and communicate to you the deeper rewards of going through this process.  Stay tuned…

Part 1: A Refresher on Wills

In the previous two episodes, we examined some of the main reasons why all parents should have wills.  Let’s take a quick recap of these.

1. Ensure your kids are looked after by someone YOU choose

Probably the most important part of a will and proper will planning process is that you ensure your child is looked after by someone you choose.  You know your child the best, you know who is and who is not the best to take care of your child.  Properly planning for this can save unnecessary headache, conflict and additional trauma for your child.

2. Provide for your children even after you’re gone

If you’re no longer around physically, you still want to uphold your duty as a parent to provide for their needs.  Creating a trust within the will is the best way to ensure that your child’s specific needs are provided for, and that you choose who will uphold and execute these wishes.  You don’t want to leave these decisions and control of the purse strings in the hands of the government.

3.  Direct how the money is utilized

You likely don’t want all of your assets given to your child as soon as he or she turns 18.  You probably want the assets to be used in productive and meaningful ways, or entrust someone you choose to decide when and how these funds should be used and eventually passed onto your child. We all know from our own experience that we still have much to learn about ourselves, the world around us, and our direction in life when we’re 18. It would be unfortunate if our 18 year old were to squander the money before he or she had the chance to discover what they really wanted in life.

Part 2: Beyond the Piece of Paper

  Let’s take a step back from this talk about wills and trusts and all of that.  We’ll come back to that and show how it all ties together.  But right now, let’s focus on the actual circumstance in which a will or trust becomes relevant – when one or both parents of the child dies.

Again, this is a subject that is never pleasant for a parent or anyone to think about.  But the fact is, some empirical studies have shown that up to five to six percent of children experience the death of a parent by the time he or she is sixteen years old.  And so as parents it is only the responsible thing to plan for such an event.  And I think you’ll consider this as important in light of some of the things I will talk about now.

Part 3: A Deeper Look at the Effects of a Parent's Death on a Child

Let’s take a deeper dive on what happens when one or both parents die, and the effects this has on the child.

Right now, you and your spouse are the main caregivers of your child, or maybe just you.  You are responsible for the nurturing, care and provision for him or her.  Your home is where your child feels most secure and safe.  Now imagine this being taken away.  Think for a moment how your child would be affected if you are suddenly taken away.

I know it’s not pleasant, but from your child’s standpoint, this is indeed an extremely traumatic event in their lives.  There has been much research by psychologists, epidemiologists and other social scientists on this topic.  One theme that’s no surprise is that a parent’s death leaves a lasting impact on the child.  Another theme that’s not so surprising if you think about it is that what happens in both the short term and long term can either help the child cope and adapt to this event, or set the child up for greater difficulties going forward and into adulthood.  Examples of such difficulties include negative effects on his or her mental health, greater personality disorders and lack of control over their emotions.

I’m sure that you would prefer a child who has learned to adapt and cope with the loss.  So let’s briefly examine what some of the effects are of a parent’s death, and what some of the factors are that can help a child adapt and cope so that they flourish into adulthood with minimal negative effects from the trauma.

Part 4: The Stages of Grief

Philip Rice, a former professor at the University of Maine-Orono, co-authored a book called “Intimate Relationships, Marriages, and Families”. In it, he proposes three stages that children go through after the death of a loved one.  These three stages are summarized in a paper called “The Impact of Parental Death on Children”, produced by the Ohio State University:

  1. Shock: Children are shocked with grief and doubt, and have a hard time dealing with the fact that their parent has died.
  2. Great Disturbance: During this stage, children may show signs of physical and emotional disturbances.  This may include inability to sleep, stomach upset, loss of appetite, depression, and anxiety.
  3. Gradual Reawakening: Children gradually readjust their lives and learn to live and enjoy most aspects of life without the deceased parent.

The first two stages, “Shock” and “Great Disturbance”, are relatively short term in nature, although the “Great Disturbance” stage may vary depending on the child.  The “Gradual Reawakening” stage is more of a long term phase that in most cases never completely ends.  What happens in the short term – or in the “Shock” and “Great Disturbance” stages – can affect what happens longer-term in the “Gradual Reawakening” stage.  There are also lasting things that can help the “Gradual Reawakening” stage over the long run.

Part 5: Short Term Actions that Affect Long Term Recovery

There are things done in the short term that influence the speed and extent of the child’s recovery and coping with the loss of a parent.  Three English academics, Jackie Ellis, Chris Dowrick and Mari Lloyd-Williams, conducted a study called “The long-term impact of early parental death: lessons from a narrative study”.  They explored the individual experiences of those who experienced the death of a parent before the age of 18, and investigated how such experiences were perceived to impact on adult life.  From these narratives, they discovered several themes that seemed to flow consistently in the subjects:

  1. Disruption and Continuity: Children who maintained continuity in what they were secure and familiar with tended to adjust and cope better than those who did not have them.  For example, those who stayed in the same neighbourhoods, kept the same friends, and enjoyed the support and care of those familiar to them adjusted much better than those who had little or no access to familiar friends and family.  The more disruptive their circumstances and networks were after the tragic loss of a parent, the worse off the effects were into adulthood.
  2. Instrumental Social Support: Children who received direct support from family and close friends adjusted much better than those who did not.  For example, the consistent presence and support of older role models and teachers at church, in the context of a loving and nurturing environment, help children adjust with their loss.  Children who do not receive such support experience greater insecurity, unresolved feelings and emotional instability into adulthood.
  3. Communication: Distress was compounded when children were not given accurate information.  This lack of information led to ensuing feelings of fear and bewilderment.  These feelings could carry on and manifest in various ways into adulthood.

What this study indicates is that intentional planning for a scenario such as the premature and unanticipated death of a parent can help alleviate some of the immediate impacts on the child.  The support of family and friends is crucial.

Part 6: How a Will Provides Immediate Help

In the short term, a well-thought out will lays out concretely what is to happen immediately if a parent dies.  As we discussed in episode 1, you have appointed a caregiver who can provide a sense of continuity, social support and communication.  Through an extended “Child Protection Plan”, you have laid out in detail your wishes and instructions for this caregiver on how the child is to be cared for and raised.  You will have already discussed these issues with the caregiver so they understand your deeper values and wishes.

Part 7: Beyond the Short Term and Into a Lasting Legacy

I’ve mentioned a number of times now on these episodes about the concept of a “lasting legacy”. And in fact, that’s part of the title for this series. What do I mean by this, and how does a will help with this? To me, a legacy is the totality of things we pass on and leave behind. So obviously this includes the physical assets you have, but it also includes the intangible things that can help your children and others in their lives. This includes the lessons and insights you have learned and pass on.

When a child loses a parent, they lose a strong compass in their lives. The physical absence of a parent is a big loss. But this doesn’t mean the compass must be completely gone. Even if we are not around physically, the memory and words of parents can be guiding lights for children well into adulthood.

Most of us can think back to key lessons that our parents taught us and that have been signposts to shape the decisions we make in life. My grandmother has been gone now for more than a decade. But I still remember the food she made for me growing up, her stories of life back in her home country, and the things she had to go through to raise my father and his siblings. Remembering those stories and tales gives me inspiration and energy to move forward.  Memories are powerful, and a parent’s bond and influence can remain even long after he or she is no longer around.

Part 8: Bringing It All Together

Let’s bring this together now and see how a good will-planning process can help a child long after your death.

A will is the document that conveys how you wish to pass down what you have.  The actual will document focuses on the transfer of physical assets.  That by itself does not mean much.  This is unfortunately where the focus of most wills ends.  It is but a piece of paper that lists what property the deceased has, and who gets what pieces of it. What’s not captured in this document is the significance of those assets, the memories surrounding them, and why the parent is passing down a specific asset.

When stories, memories and meaning are attached to physical assets, they become part of a living legacy.  Unfortunately, many times a will is just a collection of physical assets that don’t mean much other than its monetary value.  Without that meaning, those assets become the object of feuds and fighting among relatives and families to get a bigger piece of the pie.

Without getting ahead of ourselves, at Park & Jung we incorporate what we call a “Personal and Family Legacy Interview”.  We go through the will and all the assets that are included in it.  The parents are taped talking about the stories, memories and meaning behind those assets.  Details of the trust plan are discussed, and the reasons for the parents shaping them the way they do.  Infused throughout this interview are their own stories of how they grew up, people in their lives, what’s important to them, and their wishes for the child.

Through this process, deeper meaning is conveyed and communicated to the child.  The child will have a firmer anchor to guide them through their own life.  The words and memory of their parents will live on in them.

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator exalted for his theories on critical pedagogy, or methods of learning.  One point he emphasized was that what separates human beings from other species is our ability to remember.  This memory and sense of connection with the past empowers us to imagine a greater future.  I have often marveled at the power of memory, and how it gives strength and resolve for the future.

This is the philosophy I truly believe needs to emanate throughout the will and estate planning process.  We are not just passing down physical assets, but rather that AND the memories and words that empower the next generation to imagine and live a brighter future, whether we are there physically or not. And what this process also does, is give us greater clarity while are alive on what is important to us, and empowers us to live with greater intentionality and meaning. These are things we can do on our own, but I’ve found that because parents are so busy with their day-to-day lives, the seldom have the chance to pause and think about these things. This process focuses and forces them to do so, and we guide and steer parents along this path.

To give you a glimpse of how I try to incorporate this philosophy into my practice, I have developed a system called the PFLP, which stands for the “Personal and Family Legacy Plan”. Each of the letters are a single step in the overall process. During the “Personal” stage, clients gain greater clarity about themselves: their formative experiences and memories, their important values, and what they wish to impart onto their children. In the “Family” stage, clients reflect on who best affirms and is aligned with their most important values, and who they could trust to manifest those values in their children. In the “Legacy” phase, clients do an inventory of their physical assets, and then we meet to discuss how those assets can be best utilized for their children in ways that reflect their deepest values and priorities. And in the final stage of the “Plan”, we craft together the legal documents that reflects the personal legacy they wish to leave and pass on, and conduct the “Personal Family Legacy Interview” I spoke about a moment ago.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well it is, and that’s why I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, as it’s one of the most rewarding things for me to help people do that. And who knows, maybe we’ll have the good fortune of meeting one another some day.

Conclusion - PFLP Foundations Program

Thank you for joining me on this journey through the basics of Wills and Estate Planning.  I hope you found the information helpful and meaningful. Are you now inspired to take action?  Are you ready to start the journey to building a legacy that lasts?  I would like to invite you to take the next step by enrolling in our free “PFLP Foundations Program”. By registering for this program, you will begin the foundational steps necessary to a complete estate plan.  Register now by going to www.parkandjung.com/pflp.

It’s been a great pleasure providing this information to you, and I wish you all “A Beautiful Life”.

“A Beautiful Life” is a production of Park & Jung LLP.  Park & Jung endeavours to provide legal education.  The content on this podcast is strictly for general informational purposes related to the law in Ontario, Canada and is not to be used as legal advice.  For matters relating to your individual situation, please seek independent legal advice from a licencedlawyer in your jurisdiction.

This is Part 3 of our 3-Part Series on Wills for Parents:

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About Simon Park

I am a Toronto-based lawyer and a Partner at Park & Jung. You can connect with me on LinkedIn.