Like most good ideas, this one — to write a book about what to do with everything you own to leave the legacy you want — wasn’t mine. The idea belonged to a publisher I worked with years ago, who tracked me down to write it up.
“Why me?” I asked, when he shared his vision for a book on estate planning. The world of wills and trusts was as foreign to me as nuclear physics. “I’m a home design columnist. My books are about downsizing.”
“Because this is the ultimate downsizing project,” he said. “I’ve been looking for a book that goes beyond just getting your papers in order, for one that talks about what to do with everything else, and it’s not out there.”
“So, you want an estate-planning book that goes beyond people’s portfolios to their possessions, beyond their bank accounts to their belongings. A book that deals with the dishes and clothes, books and tools, mementos and music, art and jewelry. Our collections and cars. Our furniture, recipes, photos and linens. Everything we’ve made and touched and loved?” So simple.
“Yes, and that tells us how to create a plan while we’re alive so that our material assets can benefit others when we’re not around anymore.”
I remember the moment three years ago when I sternly told my closet: “I will deal with you later.” My husband and I were moving from the happy…
“When we’re not around anymore?!” I needed a stiff drink of something to figure out whether I was up to this.
“Also,” he added, his voice dropping, “I personally could really use this book, so could you hurry?” This all happened in the fall before COVID-19, and this fellow was, and is, fit and in his 50s, so I really didn’t know what the rush was, though, now, I think we all take life a little less for granted.
“Think about it,” he said.
So I started thinking. I thought about how, while we’re alive, our belongings bring us security, visual pleasure, comfort and convenience. They inspire feelings of accomplishment, memories and connections. They to some degree define us. And then what?
What if we could ensure that once we cross the finish line, our money and material goods would get funneled and redistributed in a way that served the people and causes we loved, and made a meaningful difference, as opposed to just creating a mess? I know, I know, we are out on a very thin limb here, but what if small moves we made today had a lasting impact for generations to come?
I love getting flowers. I love sending flowers. They are beautiful. They convey emotion. And, perhaps best, when they die they get tossed, so …
I dug in. I talked to experts in tax and estate law, financial planning, philanthropy, estate sales, auctions, art and furniture appraisals. Then I talked to the real experts — people of all ages and stages, who had created an exit plan with intention. Among them were some with no children, many children or someone else’s children, from families that were blended, upended or extended. Some had a little; some had a lot. But all had arranged for their belongings to fall into the right hands, someday, to make the world better.
“What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want,” (The Experiment Publishing) came out this week. The good ideas in it came from others. I am only the scribe, who, along the way, made these discoveries among others:
Everyone should have a plan. Whether you want your belongings and the fruits of your life’s work to go to your family, the arts, your church, the environment, animals, research, museums, orphans or all of the above, it won’t unless you plan. That diamond necklace, the grandfather clock, the antique rug and the vintage car are not just going to march themselves into the right hands.
Most adults don’t have a will, though most could benefit from one. Only a third of those over age 18 and just half over age 55 have any will or estate-planning document. So, if they get hit by a meteor, the state will likely decide who gets their assets. You can do better.
When I first became a weekly columnist, an editor told me that if I didn’t get both love and hate mail from readers, I wasn’t doing my job. We…
You don’t have to be rich to make a difference. But you do have to be intentional. In the book, I share the story of a single schoolteacher in the Ozarks. She left her house, worth about $65,000, to her community foundation to use to help kids go to school. Her gift became an endowment that generates two $1,000 scholarships a year in perpetuity.
Have “The Talk.” Parents and their kids need to have another talk about the facts-of-life. Don’t wait until after you’re gone for the family to discover you left Suzy the farm and Sammy the saltshaker. Explaining now what you’re doing, including your plan to give your Steinway piano to your church, will head off many conflicts later.
Do the legwork. If you have high-value items, like an antique French armoire or family silver that dates to the 1700s, have it professionally appraised, so family members know what they’re dealing with.
Liquidate while you’re alive. Don’t get rid of any belongings you still use, love and enjoy. However, if you have any you are ready to part with, ask family members if they’re interested and gift them now. Sell the others and put the cash, which is always easier to deal with than stuff, in the bank. Don’t try to hide it. Shoving money in a mattress, under a stair tread, or in a safe-deposit box almost never ends well, and is a great way to destroy a family.
Your plan is the gift. It’s not just what you leave, but how you leave it that matters.
Marni Jameson can be reached at www.marnijameson.com.