Websters Dictionary defines the term “Legacy” as: 1) a gift by will especially of money or other personal property, or 2) something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past. As an estate planning attorney, I see the term “legacy” most often associated with the transfer of money or some item of real or perceived worth. While that most certainly is an appropriate use of the term under the first definition above, it’s a use that greatly diminishes what a legacy can and perhaps should be.
The most rewarding part of being an estate planning attorney is having the opportunity to work with not just one person or one couple, but with entire families. There is an immense amount of satisfaction and inspiration that comes from sitting down with parents, children and even grandchildren as they discuss the mark they want to leave on their descendants, on the community, and even on the world at-large – the “legacy” they want to leave behind. There are hundreds of ways to ensure that the money and things we have accumulated over our lifetimes will be transferred to whomever we want, however we want. And while choosing the right medium for transferring wealth without question constitutes the nuts and bolts of comprehensive estate planning, it neither is nor, perhaps, should be the most important part. The money, property and other assets we transfer from one generation to the next are nothing more than means to some desired end or ends. As we deliberate over how much money to leave Johnny and whether that will be fair to Jane, isn’t there a more basic question we should be asking? Shouldn’t we spend some time answering the question, “What do I really want to leave behind?” Asking ourselves this question very well may lead to more legally technical solutions, but very often it leads to something much more profound, something much more rewarding. Let me explain.
Hood-to-Coast – it is a 200-mile team relay that begins more than half way up Mount Hood in Oregon, winds its way down out of the cascade range and through downtown Portland, weaves through remote meadows and valleys, climbs over and descends down another mountain range, and winds up on the sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean in Seaside, Oregon. For those who have run this race (or at least this kind of race), I don’t need to explain what it entails physically, mentally and even emotionally. For all those who haven’t, there’s really no way to describe it. Little or no sleep, very cold nights, aching muscles, and just plain exhaustion – that’s the Hood-to-Coast. One seasoned runner who has run the race every year since its inception said it best when he described the individual experience this way: “by your third time out of the van and on the road, it’s not about how physically capable you are; it’s about how mentally capable you are.” But then, at the end of it all, there’s the indescribable feeling of friendship and accomplishment that comes only with completing a challenge of this sort.
So, what does the Hood-to-Coast have to do with leaving a legacy? For me and my extended family, everything!
My father-in-law, Dr. William Romney Burke, has run the Hood-to-Coast every year for over two decades. Even last year, at the age of 68 when most people have all but hung up their running shoes, he was out there pounding the pavement with the same determination as all of the more than 15,000 other runners, some of whom are 40 years his younger. Although he began running the event with his close friends, he quickly saw the opportunity the race presented to create memories for his family. Now, some 20 years later, it has become an annual family event. Family members come in from all over to participate in the insanity. Whether running in it, supporting someone running in it, or just married to, and thus tolerating someone running in it, everyone in the family has experienced in some form or fashion this much anticipated, yet admittedly bemoaned spectacle. In fact, 2012’s event may mark the first year that a grandchild has the opportunity to run the race; and nothing could make my father-in-law happier.
As our families grow up, we realize how easily we take for granted the gathering force physical proximity plays in building memories that will endure in eternity. And as parents, children and grandchildren become ever-increasingly busy and spread out all over the map, it winds up being much more difficult to build and strengthen those bonds. Thankfully, my father-in-law has, over the years, spent money and time fostering those bonds by encouraging us to tie on a pair and hit the road for the 200-mile trek. Some of us have hated it, but most love it and look forward to doing it year after year. (Let’s be honest, nobody has a smile on their face when their running down a dirt road at 2a in the morning with little or no sleep for the past 24 hours. But hey, that’s beside the point!)
For me, I already look forward to the day when my children are old enough to run Hood-to-Coast with me. I hope and pray that my father-in-law will be here to see his grandchildren continue on what he has started. But if not, he has fostered a passion and enthusiasm for the race that will endure until the race is no more; and of all the “things” he will have left us, things both tangible and intangible, fiscally significant and insignificant, Hood-to-Coast will be one of the most memorable and cherished. His grandchildren will know what it is, and hopefully someday his great-grandchildren will know what it is. That, my dear friends, is a legacy.
As you think about your future, and the future of your loved ones and your loved ones beyond, think about this quote from the Bible:
Lay not up for yourself treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through or steal
And ask yourself, “What will my legacy be?”
Michael Wiggins is a private client lawyer who focuses his practice on simple and complex estate and special needs planning, probate, and business succession and asset protection planning. Michael’s practice also includes business formation and real estate. If you have questions in any of these fields, please call Michael at 206-370-1903 or email him at email@example.com.