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Where there’s a will, there’s a tactful way

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: August 1, 2005

What will your children remember about you? Is it the money or stocks or real estate you plan to leave to them? Or is your legacy the ways you have taught your children -- and the examples you have set -- when it comes to morality, ethics, faith and religion? A new study by Allianz Life Insurance Co. says those personal issues are 10 times more important to both baby boomers and their elders than any financial legacy.

With $7.2 trillion in wealth about to be handed to the baby boomer generation from their parents, that’s not a trivial issue. Of course, most of that financial legacy will be given by wealthy parents to children who are already financially secure. In fact, 30 percent of the wealth bequeathed to the boomer generation will go to 1 percent of the population.

But does money really matter most? Not according to this survey.

Character does count

Passing along “values and life lessons” was considered by 75 percent of those surveyed to be the most important legacy for both generations. That percentage held true for wealthy families as well as those families who may find the elder generation outliving their money.

So have you taken the time to talk with your adult parents -- or children -- about what’s really most important?

In past columns and in my books I’ve written about the importance of having “the talk” between generations. It’s certainly important to make sure your adult parents have an estate plan -- a revocable living trust, healthcare power of attorney, and living will. And it’s important that adult children have these same financial documents.

Yet it’s hard to initiate the discussion without seeming greedy, morbid or intruding. There’s just no right occasion that calls for everyone to be in the mood to discuss estate planning.

Futurist and aging expert Ken Dychtwald, president of, consulted on this study, and he has some advice on the issue of “the talk.” Dychtwald notes that the survey showed families want to focus on the memories, lessons and values transferred between generations. And he suggests that’s the way to get the talk started.

“If you ask your parents or in-laws to sit down with a pen and paper, and list how they’re planning to divide their estate, and go through a checklist of estate planning documents the atmosphere is likely to turn frigid,” he notes. “But sit down with a video camera and ask them to tell the story of their life, and you’ll get a far warmer response.”

What a great way to get the process started!

Dychtwald says that the term “legacy” as opposed to “estate” opens up a new sense of how one lives and wants to be remembered, as opposed to focusing on physical assets to be left behind.

Some other interesting results of the survey:

*68 percent of boomers -- and 71 percent of their parents’ generation -- say they have a high level of comfort discussing legacy and inheritance. Yet only about 30 percent of elders and boomers have actually had a thorough discussion.

*Those in the elder generation are twice as likely as boomers to view inheritance as a source of power: the “hand from the grave” concept of structuring their estate to either reward past behavior or create an incentive for future behaviors.

*Nearly half of elders with more than one child say they know that one of their children (dubbed the “Alpha Child” by the study) is more able to lead the discussion, handle the estate issues, and keep the family connected. When individual boomers were asked about this concept, they over-estimated, by a factor of four, that they were the Alpha Child -- suggesting that more communication is needed!

Qualities of a legacy adviser

Finally, the Allianz survey asked participants for the top qualities they look for in a “legacy adviser.”

Financial knowledge and investment abilities took a back seat to qualities like honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, a good listener and a clear communicator.

So here’s your opportunity to approach estate planning from a different direction. Grab that video camera or tape recorder, and sit down for a quiet little interview of your parents or grandparents.

The lessons you’ll learn are priceless. And maybe it will encourage them to think more about the legacy -- personal and financial -- that they will leave behind. That’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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