Family Letters, sometimes called Family Mission Statements, Family Philosophy, or Ethical Wills, emphasize the non-financial values and family culture which clients believe are important enough to mention in a final statement to their descendants and loved ones.
The Family Letter can include anecdotes and stories that illustrate values that clients believe form an integral part of their family culture that they want to be remembered, but there is really no right way or particular form that the loving statement need take to be effective except that it should be a heartfelt statement of those values and ideas that are important to you and that you want to propagate among your descendants.
The Family Letter can be the most important document in your estate plan and sets the tone for the generations yet to come by explaining enough about the past to explain why you hold your values so dear. It can also be a reflection of those ideas and values you want most to be remembered for.
A suggested outline begins with a statement of those priorities and qualities you want each family member to assimilate into their lives and pass along to their children. It should include those values and ideals you hold dear and respect and may include such qualities as intellectual curiosity, education, spirituality, religion, charity, thoughtfulness, compassion, loyalty, friendship, honesty, frugality, physical fitness, pursuit of good health through exercise and nutrition, a sense of humor, relationships with others, excellent effort, understanding, community pride, participation in community endeavours, and overall excellence.
It may include an explanation of why you chose a certain path in life, the things you value in your spouse, business relations, social encounters, travel, community and culture. You might describe your most admired characters from history or your personal life and the reasons why you admire them. You might explain activities that you enjoy and what you gained from pursuing them as well as your favorite books and authors, movies, plays, or music. For example, I might explain that I love baseball for its unparallel combination of physical prowess and honing of intellectual and physical skills in a never repeat variation of actions and how I believe understanding those relationships helps me understand the complex nature of coordinating the physical with the intellectual both inside of me and the need to cooperate with others to achieve success. You could also explore negative experiences and what you learned from them. Explaining how you overcame adversity in your business, personal, financial or health can be a valuable lesson for others. The path not chosen may have as many keys to understanding as the path taken.
The letter may encourage your descendants to pursue their talents and abilities and to build their own self esteem by personal example. You might explain what you believe is important about finding your niche in the world and pursuing a career or avocation that you find rewarding and fulfilling, including the importance of stopping along the way to “smell the roses.”
You might describe those characteristics you wish you had more of and those you wish you could have avoided. You can teach lessons of thrift, the importance of saving, patience, and perseverance. You can explain how you understood the world better as you matured and how life’s experiences may have replaced the arrogance of youth. You may speak directly to specific issues in your family or generalize. You can give your descendants permission to make mistakes so long as they learn from them to build their character. You can speak from examples or tell stories.
You might describe experiences from your life that made you happy or sad, including your relationships with your children, spouses, and others. Anything that might be considered a life’s lesson is appropriate for your written legacy.
You may choose to express the role that spirituality or religion played in your life and why.
You can exhort your descendants to reach for the stars or to strive for personal tranquillity.
You may go through several drafts of such a letter and many of my clients find the letter helps focus them on how they want to spend some of the rest of their own lives. It is a great opportunity for reflection that cannot be measured in terms of dollars and cents or minutes and hours.
We can spend some time together discussing the contents of your letter and I can show you some samples of letters written by my clients in the past, including some I have written for them based on my extensive conversations during the planning process. I no longer write for my clients because I have learned that the experience means much more if the clients take the time to do it themselves, but I enjoy sharing my observations acquired during the time we have gotten to know each other as a creative jump start for your journey. It is a journey more than a single event and the letter should be frequently updated. As we build a relationship together, so will your exploration of your inner self become a most valuable contribution to the happiness and well being of your descendants. The more you partake in the experience, the more meaning it will have for you and your family. You might want to think of it as a written record of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your family. I hope it will inspire you to new heights during your lifetime, maybe encourage you to try that experience you missed, but most of all, it will tell future generations who you were and what made you the unique and special individual I know you to be.