Posted by Expert panel
We asked our Experts to share with us the most unique—or uniquely important—legacy they plan to leave behind. Some of their answers may surprise you—and inspire you to rethink your own estate plan.
My digital self. The things you do and say in the real world will eventually get lost in the sands of time; your tweets will last forever. If you drafted your estate plan five plus years ago, it’s likely you didn’t include a very modern type of asset which we all accumulate, not realizing that it has value: Your digital assets. Email and social media accounts, the videos on your desktop, eBooks on your tablet, selfies on your smartphone. Of course, photos of your Florida vacation that didn’t make it onto your Facebook or Instagram page may be of limited interest to your heirs, so thinking about your estate plan may provide you with as good an opportunity as any to spring clean your old files. It might also force you to ask deeper questions about what you’re doing with your life, and your wider legacy. What digital footprint could your best self leave behind—something of lasting value to people outside of your family? We can’t all be J.K. Rowling but today anyone with a keyboard and something to say can self-publish an eBook. My husband, for one, recently did just that. Who knows what life it will take on in the future?
An education. Iona College is much more than an alma mater to me. My mom was a professor there for 30 years and my dad the registrar for 29. Naturally, my siblings and I chose to do our undergraduate degrees at that outstanding institution. We were really fortunate to grow up in a family of educators, and I wanted to give other kids who didn’t have those same advantages, the opportunity to get an education there as well. So, a few years ago, we set up an annual endowed scholarship to support students through college—hoping to change the course of young lives through education. While many people leave endowments in their will, something that takes effect after their passing, I wanted to see the first fruits of my legacy during my lifetime.
Scholarships are surprisingly easy to set up. If you care about education and giving back, they can be a great way to leave a meaningful legacy. Your chosen college can do most of the legwork, such as sorting through applicants. If you itemize your deductions, you can also take a charitable deduction for cash you give to an educational institution (up to 60% of your adjusted gross income). You usually need around $20,000 to endow a scholarship. If that sounds like too much, consider setting up a donor-advised fund. That way, you can make contributions over time, until your balance reaches the amount sufficient to fund your scholarship. The good news: You’ll get the tax break upfront, in the year that you contribute.
A guardian. As parents of minors, I think the most valuable thing we can put in our estate plan at this point in time is the name of a legal guardian, in the unlikely event that something happens to both my husband and me. We worked with an estate planning attorney, who was an expert at thinking through low probability scenarios like this one. If you’ve got young children, you don’t want to leave even the slim chance that a court will one day decide who gets custody of them. I get that it’s a hard topic to discuss, especially if there’s difference of opinion between you and your spouse over who should rightfully take on that surrogate parent role. It’s better to have that discussion now and to make a plan rather than leave it for your family to fight over during what would be an already emotional time. Plus, it’s not a bad idea to have a successor to that named guardian, in the event that all of you are in an accident together.
A very special diamond ring. My grandmother wanted to leave each of her six grandchildren a unique legacy, honoring our different personalities. She had a keen awareness of what we would value the most. That’s why she passed her personal recipes on to me, knowing how much I loved her cooking and would want to recreate the flavors of my childhood for my own kids and hopefully beyond. Of course, not all estate planning decisions are that easy. It gets complicated when there are physical objects, like jewelry, that can only go to one sibling. My great-grandmother’s wedding ring is a case in point. It was handed down from an aunt of hers, sometime in the 1900s. My mom inherited this diamond band of gold (originally yellow, then white gold) and I will receive it in turn, a piece of family history. My sister and I agreed that this was fair (she’s getting a different ring, from a great aunt), which means we had to sit down over Sunday lunch to discuss it. My sister and I get along, but not all siblings see eye to eye. In which case, I would argue that a family estate planning conversation is even more pressing. Parents talking openly to adult kids about who gets what can help to avoid ambiguity and potential conflict in the future. Since it can be awkward, here’s some advice on how to divide heirlooms while keeping the peace.
Horses. Sometimes a gift comes hand in hand with increased responsibility and expenses. Horses are an example. A friend of mine, heading into surgery, asked if I would take care of her horse if anything happened to her and I agreed. I appreciate that she gave me the choice, and it got me thinking about my own horses. Being named as the trustee of someone’s hooved friend was a great honor, but I knew it would also be a major responsibility. One that even a horse lover shouldn’t accept lightly. When it came to including my own noble steeds as part of my estate plan, I kept this in mind, making sure I apportioned enough money to cover hay, stable costs and potential medical bills for the rest of their equine lives. I also made sure to include specific instructions on how to use that money to care for my animal companions, in the event that something happens to me. Moreover, I thought carefully about trusteeship—who could I ask? In the end, I named a trustee and secondary trustee who were both as reliable as they were prudent but above all, who knew and loved my horses already—which made all the difference.