By Sheree Meredith
The data about the number of people who don’t have a will is staggering. In his bestselling book, “Willing Wisdom, “ author Dr. Tom Deans estimates that 125 million Americans and Canadians over the age of 18 are guilty of this.
These are just numbers; the “so what?” comes from estate lawyers and tax accountants who have a huge repertoire of troubling stories about the family strife, litigation and lost inheritances that arise when people haven’t planned, documented and shared their intentions. Many people postpone writing their will because “they don’t need it yet.” As a society we still prefer to deny aging and skirt around the reality that all of us will die, even though a recent focus on assisted death has perhaps brought this topic into the realm of conversation more frequently.
As someone who works with Hamiltonians who care about their community and who see philanthropy as one way of helping to create a vibrant city where all can prosper, I have the privilege of assisting people to figure out how they can make the difference they want to make through their philanthropy. A will is one vehicle for achieving this. But those who gain the most satisfaction from this process subscribe to the philosophy that what they are doing is “legacy planning” – a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach than simply “estate planning.”
In this same vein, “Willing Wisdom” seeks to inspire people not only to pass on their possessions but, even more importantly, their ideals and values. As part of developing a plan to do this, Deans invites readers to ask themselves this: “How would an inheritance advance your dreams for yourself, your family and your community?” He goes further, in fact, and suggests posing the question to your family as well, including them in the legacy planning process.
At HCF we have had the opportunity to facilitate these family discussions. Commonly, it is affirming to the oldest generation to share stories that reflect their values, why they have made certain choices, the issues they care about and how, as individuals and as a family, they want to continue to make a difference. It is exciting and sometimes surprising for them to hear how the next generations have been influenced by this way of life, and to better understand their heirs’ personal values, beliefs and interests. One family, for example, assumed that their grandchildren had very different interests than themselves. As the discussion evolved however, they found that they shared a common value base and a passion for supporting innovation. While their interest areas were quite different – one was the arts and one was social enterprise – they held common values, beliefs and even goals.
Using this shared purpose to shape a legacy plan that includes a will, can be both immensely satisfying and also prevent some of the tensions and conflict that easily result when the older generation’s plans are not known, shared and discussed in advance. Regardless of their age, stage or position in life everyone has the opportunity to leave a legacy that has meaning and impact. It’s not just the privilege of the wealthy. In many cases we just haven’t taken the time or known exactly how to think it through. Many people think more specifically about their giving leading up to the holiday season as well as the end of the calendar year.
The time is right to begin or to reinvigorate a vital conversation about what you believe is important, why, and the difference you want to make. And, of course, put pen to paper and leave the ranks of millions who don’t have a will!
Sheree Meredith is vice-president of philanthropic services at Hamilton Community Foundation, and is passionate about helping people discover and make the difference they want to make. —Hamilton Spectator