Doing something great with your Last Will and Testament

There have been some wonderful examples recently of people using their Last Will and Testament to make lasting change in the World. The first one I saw was “Town is left £2m legacy by terminally ill banker to help keep it ‘beautiful’. According to the article “When banker Keith Owen was diagnosed with cancer and given only eight weeks to live, he started to think of ways to leave his mark. In the end he said it with flowers – one million of them to be precise – leaving them to the seaside town he had fallen in love with. Shortly before his death, Mr Owen, 69, a Canadian citizen, took the astonishingly generous decision to change his will and leave his £2.3million fortune to Sidmouth in Devon.” He now wants residents of the town to embark on a project to plant 1 million bulbs.

Then there was the story of an elderly lady who left an alarm clock to a hospital, but in it, she had stuffed $10k in cash and a $7k gold bar.

In Wales, Bob and Flora Livsey left £550,000 to go towards services at Glan Clwyd Hospital, Bodelwyddan. It will help fund a catheter laboratory which is due to open next year.

And then, a couple of weeks ago the story of the Toronto Woman, who left her life savings to police dogs and horses. This story in particular describes something of the thought processes behind charitable bequests;

“She’d earlier intended to leave her money to an animal sanctuary, but changed her mind after reading an unfavourable story about it in the newspaper. She then decided to give it to the Toronto Zoo. But again changed her mind after reading a story about the elephants leaving the zoo.”

The article also explains the lack of constraints imposed by the legacy “she wasn’t specific about how the money was to be used — just that it was to benefit the care of the 27 police horses and 32 police dogs. Police have been looking at several options, such as new saddle blankets for the horses. “It’s things like that which really fit into the spirit of what she wanted, I feel this is a real responsibility she’s entrusted me to look after … these are her life savings, so it certainly makes us feel even more concerned that it goes to what she wanted.’”

These few examples demonstrate how much positive difference can be made when preparing one’s Will. For many people, money is tight, and finding spare funds for charitable donations throughout the year can be challenging. But including a legacy within a Will is a painless way to show your appreciation for an organization that has touched your life.

You can make a Will in about 20 minutes at www.legalwills.ca, www.legalwills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com, and within that document, it is easy to set up a charitable bequest either as a fixed amount, or as a percentage or your estate.

You don’t need much to leave a lasting legacy

We often hear people say that they don’t have a Will because they don’t have much to leave. In a previous article we explained how this excuse is a poor one, as a Will isn’t supposed to come into effect the day it is written, but at some point, hopefully in the distant future. Put simply, you have absolutely no idea what your estate may be worth, and it is very common for a person’s estate to be worth far more after they have passed away, than they were ever worth during their lifetime.

Last week though we were reminded of how modest legacies can make a real difference. Charities work hard to promote legacy donations, and there is no doubt that even the most wealthy charities gratefully accept $100 or £100 donations. However, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate how a small legacy can make a difference to a billion dollar charity.

Last week, the story of  Aaron Collins reminded us that you can be smart with your legacy gifts and make real differences with a modest amount of money. As a 30 year old cancer patient, Mr Collins knew he was going to die, but he didn’t have a huge net worth, his own brother said that he “didn’t have the money to take care of himself while he was alive”, but he believed in random acts of kindness and explained in his Will that he wanted his family to go out for pizza and leave the waitress “an awesome tip…..I don’t mean 25%. I mean $500 on a f***ing pizza for a waiter or waitress”. So his brother set up a blog asking for donations to respect Aaron’s wishes and money has started to roll in. When you watch the video of the waitress’ reaction you can’t help but be touched. It is inspiring to see how creative you can be with your Will to make a difference to people’s lives. Whether it’s buying a goat for a family in a developing country for just $75, or setting up a scholarship fund or prize at your old high school for $100.

Please feel free to add some great ideas below; what is the biggest bang for the buck you can get when leaving a legacy?

And if you have now been convinced that you don’t need to be wealthy to write a Will, you can prepare one in about 20 minutes for $34.95 at LegalWills.ca and USLegalWills.com and for £24.95 at LegalWills.co.uk. If you haven’t given as much to charity during your lifetime, maybe a legacy gift is something worth considering.

Philanthropy and the Last Will and Testament

There are many reasons to write a Will, and we talk about them in most of our posts on this blog, but one area that we’ve not really touched on is the power of your Last Will and Testament to make a difference to the World. Most of us feel that on a day-by-day basis we could probably do a little more by way of charitable contributions. But it turns out that your Will is one of the most powerful tools for helping people and organizations in need. The common term for this is “planned giving”.

We’ve all heard the story of the elderly widow, with no family, who left their wealth to a local cats’ home, but charitable giving need not always be so newsworthy. Most Wills have sections for specific gifts which allows you to name a sum of money (a “pecuniary legacy” as it is known in the UK) for a specific beneficiary. This really gives you an opportunity to be a little more generous that you may have been during your lifetime and for many modest estates, a $10,000 or £5,000 legacy can be comfortably absorbed.

The next step is to choose the appropriate charity. For some people there may be a particular cause that touched their lives, but it is always worthwhile to conduct a little research into the effectiveness of charities and how much of your donation ends up making a difference. The CBC in Canada this morning exposed the finances of the Canadian Cancer Society which showed how currently 22% of donations end up going to research, down from 40% ten years ago.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help with your research. In the US, Charity Navigator provides detailed financial breakdowns and rankings of thousands of charities. The UK equivalent is the government-run Charity Commission. In Canada, Charity Intelligence provide a number of reports and last year Moneysense magazine ranked the top 100 charities by things like Efficiency, Governance and Transparency. It would be terrible to think that your legacy was doing little beyond paying salaries to a Board of Directors rather than going to the cause itself.

Once you have decided on the charity, you have to make sure that you name it in an unambiguous way in your Will. Leaving a bequest to “cancer” does not give your Executor enough information to distribute the legacy (although the terms in the Will usually allow them to make their best effort in this case). You should include the registered number of the charity which could either be found on the website or with a government agency.

So if you really couldn’t think of a reason why you would need a Will (and I would love to hear any of these in the comments!), maybe the opportunity to make a difference to the World is just the spur that you need.

Beyond your Estate plan, what’s your legacy?

If you are a fan of crime writing and TV drama you may have a romantic notion of a Last Will and Testament being your voice from the grave. The opportunity for you to tell everybody what you really think of them and share some of your values and opinions. In reality, a Last Will and Testament is generally a clinical legal document that must be unambiguous and to the point. It has to clearly set up the roles and responsibilities of the Executor and Trustee, unequivocally lay out your wishes for the distribution of the estate, and include clear instructions for additional responsibilities like guardians for minor children. Because the document has to be completely unambiguous, it is not the most appropriate vehicle for sharing your opinions on the World and your circle of loved ones.

Having said that, it is extremely important to be able to leave a little of yourself for future generations, and now people talk about the leaving of a “legacy” beyond your estate. A legacy plan differs from an estate plan because it communicates your values, wishes and memories rather than the distribution of your possessions.

There is more connecting the Last Will and Testament to the Legacy Plan than you may at first think. You may have chosen to leave tens of thousands of pounds or dollars to a child or grandchild – a legacy plan would give you the opportunity to share with that young person the values that go along with that inheritance. If you have spent a lifetime frugally accumulating a reasonable estate, it would go against all of your principles for the recipient of an inheritance to rush out a buy a new Porsche with their new-found wealth. With an inheritance comes responsibilities and although a Will may make passing reference to the sentiment behind a bequest, it is not a place to share your moral values and explain how you would want an inheritance to be received. If for example you accumulated some money by placing every loose penny in a jar for your whole life and then investing those pennies wisely, a $2,000 inheritance may mean a little more to the recipient than a new big screen TV.

Your legacy documents should be stored with your estate planning documents and can be made up of things like a video message, letters to loved ones, a scrapbook of important events, photos, memorabilia and journals. There is a wonderful book called Your Legacy of Love by Gemini Adams that explains the importance of your legacy items with practical tips for creating a lasting legacy. The book includes the amazing statistic;

“If one of your parents died, what would you prefer: to inherit their money, or a letter saying how much they loved you?” Over 90% expressed a wish for the loving letter.

So although it is important to have your estate planning documents in place, consider complementing those documents with a description of what your estate means to you and what your loved-ones mean to you. Explain why your estate is being distributed the way you have outlined in your Will and share some of your values that should accompany any inheritance.