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4 Smart Ways to Leave a Legacy

Passing on your possessions isn't the only way to be remembered. Here's how to chronicle your life and tell your heirs what mattered most to you. 

By Bart Astor

This article is adapted from the new book, AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life: Smart Choices About Money, Health, Work, Lifestyle … and Pursuing Your Dreams.

We all want to be remembered, to feel that we’ve contributed something to the world. For some, this can be a driving force leading to great accomplishments and extraordinary contributions to mankind. But for most of us with more modest goals, what pushes us is the desire to leave a legacy.

Your legacy is putting your stamp on the future. It’s a way to make some meaning of your existence: “Yes, world of the future, I was here. Here’s my contribution, here’s why I hope my life mattered.”

There are many ways you can leave a legacy. The most obvious, of course, is bequesting an inheritance to your survivors through your last will and testament.

But your legacy is about far more than material things.

(MORE: Focus on Passing Down Your Values, Not Money)

Your nephew will be teaching his son how to fish and as he explains the feel of pulling up on the rod, he’ll flash back to the time you taught him that same technique. That’s also a legacy.

Most of what we leave our children and grandchildren are memories – of who we are and what mattered to us. We provide this legacy by being with our loved ones and through our relationships.

But you can do more than just serve as a good role model. You can take a more active approach to leaving a legacy. Here are four ways to do it:

Provide a family history Researching your genealogy is a wonderful way to let your kids and grandkids understand where you and they came from.

Track your brood with specialized genealogy websites, like and Then invite the next generation to add their branches of the family tree in the future.

Add your personal story to the genealogy record by including anecdotes and feelings. Describe your relationships with your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and children.

(MORE: 9 Most Common Regrets of the Living and Dying)

Doing this will enrich the bare facts and timeline, providing color so your heirs and survivors can know what it really felt like to live during your years. That’s a legacy no one else can provide.

Give to charity Another way to leave a legacy is by contributing money or the equivalent to a charitable cause that reflects your values.

You could create a meaningful gifting plan so your kids and grandkids will receive money while you’re alive, allowing you to watch them benefit from your generosity.

(MORE: How to Talk With Your Adult Kids About Their Inheritance)

Wealthier people can create a charitable foundation or a trust that provides ongoing distributions, so the gift has more lasting value.


For example, you can endow a scholarship to your alma mater for future students. Most colleges have development offices to help you set up this program. Many require at least $25,000 for an ongoing trust, but that money doesn’t have to go to the school right away; it can be left in your will.

You might also work with a charity or college to design an annuity in which the institution is designated as the beneficiary when you die but pays you interest during your lifetime. You’ll get a tax credit for some of the donation, too.

Check with your tax and financial advisers for the most appropriate ways to accomplish your charitable goals.

Write a legacy letter Think about everything you’d want to tell your loved ones and your survivors if you knew you didn’t have long to live then put it all in a letter to them.

I’m not talking about the kinds of things you want the executor of your will to know such as your funeral and memorial wishes, your Social Security number, where your financial accounts are held and your digital passwords. (For advice on these things, see the Next Avenue articles “9 Ways to Make Things Easier for Your Survivors” and “5 Steps to Creating Your Digital Estate Plan.”)

No, your legacy letter is a way to speak directly to your loved ones and say all those things you wish you had told them earlier. Tell your grandson how much it meant to you to be at his birth and how sad you are that you won’t be able to watch him grow.

This letter can be a way to ensure your spouse or partner knows how much joy your relationship brought and that you hope he or she will find happiness after you’re gone.

Prepare an ethical will An ethical will is the logical extension of a legacy letter. With an origin going back to centuries of elders orally conveying their values to the next generation, an ethical will lets you share the meaning of your life, beliefs and life lessons.

There are no strict rules governing an ethical will because it’s a nonbinding document. Unlike a traditional last will and testament, an ethical will doesn’t lay out who will receive your possessions. You can, however, use it to explain why certain possessions will go to specific people.

It can be done in writing, as an aural recording or on video. You might want to make a kind of scrapbook, with pictures and anecdotes annotating them. For example, the note next to the picture of your daughter graduating from college could say something like:

With Julia at her graduation. It was at that moment, Julia, that my heart overflowed with joy. I saw then how good you felt about yourself after all your hard work. The "Thanks, Dad" meant so much to me, more than you could ever imagine.

An ethical will is your way of telling your personal story, tying together what you’ve accomplished, how you’ve lived your life and what you hope your heirs will take from you.

It’s your way of still being in the room, which is the point of leaving a legacy.

Photograph of Bart Astor
Bart Astor, an expert in life transitions and elder care, is the author of the book AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life: Smart Choices About Money, Health, Work, Lifestyle and Pursuing Your Dreams and Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. His website is and he can be reached at [email protected]. Read More
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