In the course of my law practice I often ask clients, “What is it that you will leave to your loved ones?” During the discussion, the beginning answer of “my wealth” evolves into the real answer — “myself and my stuff.” All of that really is one’s wealth.
Drilling down into the meaning of “myself” reveals many possibilities. A photo album of people and events with some sort of explanation or note attached to each photo offers one example. Today’s technology allows for a more enhanced version of that old photo album. A written narrative of one’s life or of some of its more meaningful events offers another example. For many people, it’s one of those things “I’m absolutely going to do someday.”
Most of the ideas we think of when the question arises are pretty burdensome, though. And that’s why they never get done. Mom gets the photo boxes down from the closet shelf with the idea of going through them to create that album and then sees what she’s gotten herself into.
I recently read a newspaper article about a mother who’d lost her adult daughter to a car crash and how this mother treasured the recording on her daughter’s cell phone and grieved when that message was deleted. The article went on to describe a number of similar events. A Washington man had saved and treasured a voice message from his mother asking him to visit her. After she passed away from cancer, he would call that number occasionally just to hear her voice — until that message also was deleted.
When Bill and Carole, my hypothetical client couple, were in the early stages of estate planning with me, we recorded a few of their life stories, including a story they called, “How I Met Mattie” about their feelings toward their now adult autistic son. The purpose of the story telling and recording was initially to better understand who they are and their heartfelt goals and objectives. But I soon informed them these stories were far more than tools to help design an estate plan. These recorded stories could be a major piece of the legacy they were going to leave behind. The stories represent a part of themselves — a part of their wealth.
Bill and Carole were surprised to realize this, and we eventually recorded more stories to simply add to their legacy. All recordings were burned to compact discs, attractively and professionally labeled and reproduced enough for distribution to all their loved ones. What a gift: Dad’s stories told in his own words and, even better, in his own voice.
Every time I do this with a client I’m reminded of a situation in my own life. My grandfather was born and raised in the hill country of Tennessee. That’s a special culture all its own. As a young man, my grandfather and his older brother walked all the way from Tennessee to Nebraska to start a farm.
My grandfather died in the early 1950s without, as far as I know, ever telling his stories. What a loss. What would I or my cousin, Tom, give today to have a recording of our grandfather recounting his trek?
I recommend that everyone think carefully about using this method of leaving a legacy of stories. It’s a simple process once one has designed a few specific, open-ended questions that invite storytelling and rabbit trails.