If you've been following this column for a while, you're no stranger to my feelings on wills. In a nutshell, if you're an adult with a family or assets that you care about, you should have one. In particular, if you have children and have yet to start a will, you're doing your family a major disservice. But what about a legacy plan?
Many people associate the word "legacy" with the wealthy, but the truth is, a legacy plan has very little to do with money. Instead, the focus is on your values and how you would like them played out by future generations.
"In addition to helping folks document practical information that would be appropriate in the aftermath of their death, a legacy plan will also help them document information about who they are and the values and traditions they honor. Those things, at the end of the day, are more important to survivors than a check in the bank," explains Mark Colgan, founder and CEO of Plan Your Legacy.
Legacy planning isn't something we talk about all that often in this business of personal finance, but perhaps it should be. After all, we've all experienced the pain of someone close to us suddenly passing away, leaving lots of loose ends and unanswered questions. Here's how you can make things a bit easier for your loved ones:
Don't delayIt's never too early to put together a legacy plan, something that Colgan himself learned the hard way when his first wife suffered a fatal heart attack at 28. Understandably, people are scared to think about death, so they procrastinate when it comes to planning for it. But waiting isn't going to get you anywhere, and it certainly isn't going to make the prospect of death go away. Instead, why not take care of the unpleasant details now, so you can enjoy life without them hanging over your head? It's worth it, I promise.
BrainstormStart by putting pen to paper. "I encourage people to write down, sometimes in letter form, the things that represent who they are and what they care about," says Alan Pratt, owner of Pratt Legacy Advisors in Washington State. That could mean the charities you contribute to, information about how you'd like funeral services to be handled, the traditions you'd like to see your family carry on, or all of the above. Think about all the information you'd like to have —apart from a legal will — if a close friend or family member suddenly passed away. The idea is to answer any questions before they have to be asked.
Get helpYou could do this on your own (Colgan offers a free guide at planyourlegacy.com/getstarted), but if you have the means, it's worth it to enlist the help of a professional. The process can usually be done in a single afternoon, says Colgan, and a legacy planner will walk you through each step so that nothing is overlooked.
You'll probably start by answering some questions, many of which will seem a little random — things like your favorite childhood memory, or how you met your spouse. By doing this, you're giving background information for your survivors, so they'll not only know what kind of causes you support, but why. Then you'll be able to make a journal of vital information, which Colgan says includes everything from your personal family history to instructions on how you want your children to be raised and how your pets should be cared for. "Basically, this is all the details other folks are going to need after you've passed on, so that they can move forward," he explains.
And don't be afraid to add some extras. Colgan recommends including is a wish list. If you caught Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in last year's movie "The Bucket List," you know what this is: A list of things you want to accomplish in your life. Another possible inclusion is personal messages to friends and family.
Take advantage nowPutting together the plan not only helps your survivors, it's also a great way to remind yourself of your values and priorities. These days, we're so busy that it's easy to get off track, and this process is a great opportunity to get back on. "We really try and focus on allowing people to uncover through questioning what they care about, so that they can take actions in their lifetime with their time and money to have their legacy reflect who they are," Platt says. If the process reminds you of a cause you've been meaning to support, or a characteristic you value in others but haven't necessarily been living up to yourself, that's all the better.
PrioritizeThis is not a will, nor is it a substitute for one. In fact, it isn't a legal document. That means that even if you put together a legacy plan, you still need an estate plan, including a will, a power of attorney and a healthcare proxy. They go hand in hand, but if you don't have the money or the time right now to do it all, the estate plan comes first. Once everything is completed, be sure to check in every few years and make any necessary changes or updates, particularly after a major milestone.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .