A Legacy Letter, also known as an Ethical Will is a method of documenting your life experiences, values, and opinions to share with family and others.
The following information will provide you with practical tips to consider before you commence writing your Legacy Letter.
PEOPLE WRITE LEGACY LETTERS FOR LOVED ONES
Everyone creates their own unique personal legacy of the life they have lived. We all have many stories, experiences, and lessons we have learned throughout our lives.
The wisdom that we attained along the journey of life should be shared with your loved ones and future generations that come after us.
“A Legacy Letter often becomes one of the most valued
and meaningful gifts you can leave to your loved ones”
Unlike a Last Will and testament or an Advance Care – Health Directive / “Living Will” a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will is NOT a legal document and is NOT written by lawyers, ………………it’s written by you.
It is a personal and spiritual letter and can form a part of your End of Life Planning. It does not provide for the distribution of your property, wealth or form part of your Estate Planning. But, it can be a useful basis for preparing a Legal Will and Advance Care / Health Directive.
Legacy Letters or Legacy Statements may range from:
- a simple handwritten letter of a few paragraphs
- a detailed electronic document of several pages or more
- it can be an audio recording or in a video format.
Legacy Letters are a way to document your personal reflections about what truly mattered most to you during your life.
- life’s lessons
- blessings and forgiveness for loved ones or
- events that shaped your life.
When did Legacy Letters start being used?
Legacy Letters and Ethical Wills are not new. References to Legacy instructions are found in the Judeo-Christian Bible, Genesis 49:1-28-33, when a dying Jacob gathered his sons to offer them his blessing and to ask that they bury him in Canaan with his ancestors and not in Egypt, also they are referenced in John 15:18. Another biblical example of ethical wills is referenced in Deuteronomy 32:46-47 where Moses instructs the Israelites to be a holy people and teach their children.
The Apocrypha, the Talmud, medieval and modern Hebrew literature all contain examples of ethical wills used by Jewish parents for their children.
It a way of documenting their life experiences, values, opinions and what they wanted most for their children.
Rabbis and Jewish laypeople have continued with this tradition and the practice has been increasingly used by the community in general.
1. Why Should You Write a Legacy Letter today?
Most of us are not in impending danger in our everyday life or work, or so we believe. Just consider –
- the 35 people who visited the Port Arthur site on the 28th April 1984
- the 202 people (including 88 Australians) who died at the Sari Club in Kuta, Bali in 2002 thought they we going to enjoy a night out in a holiday destination
- when 6 people died in the Bourke Street Mall Melbourne in 2017
- when people return from a holiday cruise and die from being infected with Co-vid 19 virus, or
- when nearly 25 people a week die on our roads.
All these people didn’t think they were in danger or going to die that day.
I do not wish to alarm you but to remind you that none of us knows when our End of Life will be.
Start your Legacy Letter today as tomorrow may be too late!
I encourage you to take the time to express your love to the people in your life. Such as your:
- spouse or partner
- children and/or grandchildren
- parents and siblings
- extended families or close friends
- work colleagues, and
- anyone you feel indebted to or care for.
2. When Do People Write a Legacy Letter?
There is no set time to write a Legacy Letter, it is dependent on each person’s unique journey and timeline. A Legacy Letter can be completed at any time in your life. Legacy Letters are often being written by people that reach various milestones or face challenging events in their lives.
These life milestones may include:
- the birth of a child
- when a couple become “empty nesters”
- presented with a retirement situation
- when a significant person of influence in your life has died, such as a parent or mentor
- when people are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses
These are examples of times when people reflect on what is important to them in life. It provides a dimension to their lives by providing a link to future generations. They are providing an outline of their values and beliefs for their loved ones when they are gone.
3. What Do I Include in a Legacy Letter?
Every Legacy Letter or Legacy Statement is as unique as the person writing it. The following are some of the points you may wish to write about:
- beliefs, opinions, and values
- things you did to act on your values
- something you learned from any of the following influencers or who had an important impact upon your life. Like your grandparents, parents, spouse, great aunt, children, a coach or a friend.
- what you had learned from your life’s experiences
- what has meant most to you
- something you are grateful for
- what future hopes and wishes you have for your loved ones.
- five words you wish people would associate with you when talking or describing you
- what were your passion and interests
- your fondest memories
- what motivated you and got you up each day
- the things you looked forward to
- what were your biggest worries or concerns in life
- descriptions or history of any family traditions or heirlooms
It is never recommended that your Legacy Letters be used for recrimination, harsh criticisms, admonish or unlocking family secrets which could cause resentments and pain.
4. How to Start Your Legacy Letter
Initially, consider who you are writing your Legacy Letter for.
Write a sentence or two about each point you wish to elaborate upon in your letter. Once you start writing ideas and examples will begin to enter your mind and before you realise, you will have several topics or examples that you wish to write about.
There may be a possibility that you might not complete your letter in one session. View this as your first draft. Don’t judge yourself too harshly for your writing style, punctuation, or spelling.
The people you are writing it for will appreciate the elegance of your letter. With such a personal gift the recipients would rather have it written in the style that they could envisage you saying the words.
As the weeks and months progress:
- you will review what you have composed
- group related items together and patterns will become clear to you
- review each of the points and organise them into sections
- organise the individual sentences into paragraphs in an order logical to you, with an introduction and conclusion.
Now file your draft letter away in a safe place and revisit it to review, revise and update your thoughts.
5. What form should your Legacy Letter take?
Remember, your Legacy letter can be in any format or combination that you would feel most comfortable in composing or would most suit the receiver of your messages.
The various forms that your Legacy Letter could take include:
- letter or book style format either typed or handwritten
- series of letters
- video format as either a conversation or interview style
- Audio recording
- scrap book or photo albums, or
- any combination of the above.
6. When should you start writing your legacy letter?
If you have taken the time to read this article, I encourage you to sit down, put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard and begin writing. Document your thoughts on what matters most to you for the people you love to read and cherish when you have gone.
“The time to start working on your Legacy Letter is today”.
Do not wait and procrastinate over starting. People find that once they articulate their values and experiences they start to live their life more focused, intentionally and the way they often want to be remembered for. It may also bring you a certain peace of mind.
Thinking of starting to write your Legacy Letter when you are lying in the Emergency Department or Intensive Care Unit of a hospital is usually too late.
Remember “There is no one” fit all” way to write your Legacy Letter”
Your Legacy Letter or Ethical Will should be considered as part of your End of Life Planning. This is just a very brief introduction to writing Legacy Letters, which form part of your overall End of Life Planning.
Discover what other End of Life Planning documents you should consider organising and putting on your to-do list as part of your overall planning.
Let me know of your experiences?
Have you ever received a Legacy Letter and how did you feel about receiving it?
Would you think of writing a Legacy Letter after reading this article?
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Sources used for this article
Barry K. Baines, author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.
Rabbi Jack Riemer, Writing and Reading Ethical Wills – On the Jewish custom of leaving a written spiritual legacy for one’s children, site accessed 14 April 2020.
King James Bible, Genesis Chapter 49, 1-33. Site accessed 10 April 2020
Bible Hub, John 15:18, site accessed 9 April 2020
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a Legacy Letter the same as an Ethical Will?
Yes. Legacy Wills is the modern form of the traditional Ethical Will and the terms are commonly used interchangeably. They are sometimes also referred to as an Emotional Will, Life Letters, Heart Wills, Ending Notes and Your Life Story.
They are a document usually written to communicate values, share pearls of wisdom, traditions, a record of family history, explain, inspire, forgive and express love. They preserve who you are and what mattered most to you. It’s a way for you to be remembered and offer a gift that can be passed on through the generations. They are not a legal document and they are for passing on values and not valuables.
What are 6 important questions you need to consider before starting your Legacy Letter?
1. Why should you consider writing a Legacy Letter today?
2. When should people consider writing their Legacy Letter?
3. What should you consider including in your Legacy Letter?
4. How should you start composing your Legacy Letter?
5. What form should your Legacy take?
6. When should you start writing your Legacy Letter?
Are Legacy Letters legally binding?
Your Legacy Letter or Ethical Will are not legally binding. They complement a legal Will with information you would want to be shared if you were alive. Such as explaining the reasons behind your decisions about your Will. It also is the means by which you can share your values, life lessons hopes, dreams, even forgiveness for your family and friends. But you should not promise gifts or property from your estate in any of these communications.