How do you want to be remembered?
Use these tips to put plans in place that can help protect your family and secure your legacy.
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT what you want to pass on to your loved ones, perhaps it’s the memories of shared experiences, the values you lived by or the financial security you worked hard to achieve. What you don’t want is for your family to be uncertain of your wishes and bogged down in financial paperwork — and maybe even bickering amid the uncertainty.
Yet despite the benefits of having your affairs in order, more than half of those 55 and older lack the most basic estate planning document — a will.1
“Planning your legacy can give you the reassurance that you've done all you can to organize your life, articulate your wishes and shape how you will be remembered,” says Kevin Hindman, managing director at Bank of America Private Bank. To get the essentials in place, “seek trusted advice from family, friends and financial, legal and medical professionals,” he suggests. “And make sure you have advocates who know your wishes and can work on your behalf.”
Starting a conversation with your family about your legacy can be tough. According to a 2022 survey by the senior housing and care website Caring.com, only about a quarter of those 55 and older report talking to their children about estate planning; one out of five of those under 55 have had that conversation with their parents.2 What’s the sticking point? In many cases, it may be children’s reluctance to take part in difficult planning conversations that force them to acknowledge their parents’ mortality. “Parents are actually more receptive to talking about legacy planning than their kids might be,” says Matthew Wesley, director of the Merrill Center for Family WealthTM. “Most parents don’t want to burden their kids with a mess, turmoil and conflict because of inadequate planning.”
“Although these frank planning conversations may be uncomfortable as they’re happening, it’s necessary to have them so that everyone’s expectations are out on the table,” adds Cynthia Hutchins, director of Financial Gerontology at Bank of America. “Once you’ve had them, you can enjoy life more fully, knowing you’ve done your best to see that your wishes will be observed and your family well cared for.” Here's how to get started.
Make it a life-affirming conversation
When it comes to talking with your family about your wishes — everything from how you want to be cared for to how you plan to distribute your property and financial assets — the sooner you get started, the easier it is for your loved ones. By starting early and returning to the subject regularly, you help to normalize it, points out Wesley.
“We suggest introducing the topic gradually, starting with discussions about your core values and the use of wealth. Once you have done the foundational work, you will be ready to talk about the technical issues involved and finally reveal the numbers,” he says. “Make it all a life-affirming conversation, not one heavily focused on death.”
“Planning your legacy can give you the reassurance that you’ve done all you can to organize your life, articulate your wishes and shape how you will be remembered.”
Emphasize the benefits of planning ahead
In a survey by the estate planning website Wealth.com, 57% of respondents said they feared that managing their estate will be a burden on loved ones.3 Advance healthcare directives, durable powers of attorney for healthcare, wills and financial powers of attorney or revocable trusts are essential legacy-planning documents that people of all ages and income levels can benefit from. They not only offer you more control over your legacy, but they also can help make life easier for your family.
Key to the legacy-planning process is communicating your wishes to your family. One potential way to start that conversation is to bring up a personal story — perhaps the loved one of someone you know recently became gravely ill, causing upheaval in a family that was unprepared, suggests Hutchins. “You could follow the story with ‘That made me start thinking about what would happen in our family. Here's how I would like to see us handle it,’” she adds. “You might start by telling young adult children that you have a will, and that you've designated people you trust as your powers of attorney until your children are ready to assume those roles. Over time, you can share more details of your wishes and increase the depth of the conversation.”
“Start the conversation by bringing up a story about someone who became ill, causing upheaval in the family. You can say, ‘That made me start thinking about what would happen in our family. Here’s how I would like to see us handle it.’”
When it comes to your healthcare, it also can help to focus the initial conversation on your personal wishes — not on the assets needed to pay for long-term care, advises Wesley. Talk about how your durable power of attorney for healthcare and your advance healthcare directive will reduce the need for your loved ones to make tough medical decisions during what will undoubtedly be a difficult and very emotional time for them.
Call in the experts when you’re ready
“At some point, you’ll want to address whether you’ve done the necessary financial planning to cover the costs of receiving extra medical care should you need it,” Wesley says. “Often, inviting a financial professional to join the conversation can help.” They can provide the entire family with a reality check on the cost of long-term care, which most people underestimate or incorrectly assume will be covered by Medicare, Hutchins adds. You also could get useful perspective on legacy planning as a whole, including ways you might use trust or life insurance strategies to help minimize taxes and manage assets for your loved ones.
Revisit your plan
“Perhaps, someday, you’ll have grandchildren to consider in your will, or you’ll be ready to think about leaving a broader legacy of giving to the causes you care about. Your ideas about how you want to spend your last years may change, based on the state of your health and where you all are in your lives,” Hutchins says. “These are very fluid and dynamic conversations, and they’re worth returning to periodically.”
“They’re also an opportunity to reinforce the values you’ve taught over the years, reflect on the good times and remind your loved ones how much they mean to you,” she adds.