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Legacy letters provide a peek at the past and a direction for the future

What Is a Legacy Letter?

A legacy letter (sometimes called an ethical will) is a written document that can be used to pass along life lessons to surviving family members after death. These documents take many forms but are often a combination of memoir and directive. In many cases, they articulate the charitable wishes of the family.

Why Use a Legacy Letter to Talk to Your Family About Giving?

The process of writing a legacy letter raises some provocative questions like, what are your core values or what personal experiences have inspired you to consider charitable giving? Answering these questions helps family members understand each other better.

Shannon Gahagan, a philanthropic advisor at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, says, “The process can provide intimate sharing moments, where you understand the family members’ passions and beliefs. And these discussions often naturally connect to the issues and organizations that people want to support in the future.”

Although a legacy letter may never become a formal written document, the idea is to get you and your loved ones talking about your values.

Beth McCray, a gift planner at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, says, “Kids don’t know the details about their parents’ assets, but if they understand what their parents value, that’s a lifelong lesson.”

Life Lessons and Inspiring Generosity

A legacy letter also provides a way to talk to family members about money — a topic many people find uncomfortable. Shannon says, “These conversations can transform a discussion about finances into a meaningful personal history. People share themselves in ways they never have before. They allow themselves to be vulnerable.”

For most people, a physical letter isn’t as important as the exercise of clarifying shared beliefs in person. The process helps spell out the people, organizations, communities and issues that a family values and will support.

Beth has seen these conversations deepen family relationships. “The stories that come out are retold later,” she says. “The family treasures them, and they inspire generosity in a different way when people understand the ‘why’ behind a gift.”

Clarifying Values to Guide Giving

Whether you are considering how to support organizations you value or simply offering insights to people you love, why wouldn’t you want the chance to pen a few last sentences in the story of your life? The Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation offers a donor toolkit for families who are ready to discuss their legacy with family and loved ones. Contact your Philanthropic Advisor to get started with the toolkit.

Want to Learn More about Legacy Letters? Check Out These Resources

New York Times writer Constance Gustke provides some historical context on legacy letters in “The Ethical Will, an Ancient Concept Is Revamped for the Tech Age.” The article references the book So Grows the Tree — Creating an Ethical Will by Jo Kline Cebuhar as a resource.

Legacy Letters, Passing on Values, Not Just Valuables is a fairly comprehensive online resource that describes a variety of legacy letter projects and how these letters impacted the people who created them.

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