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Legacy Planning: Get Off the Treadmill And Make It Happen

Marguerite Weese  |  March 7, 2024

Ready to begin legacy planning? Our expert outlines the six questions you should be asking yourself to plan for the future.

When I think about getting exercise, I’m always glad for spring to come because I can actually get outside and off the treadmill. While running for a few miles without actually getting anywhere is a decent stopgap for the winter, the nicer days mean I can actually do something that gets me somewhere new. In many ways, I think about legacy planning in the same way.

When I talk to my clients about their legacy planning, I always ask this question as a starting point: Where do you want to go, and how do you want to get there?

Legacy planning can be a tricky discussion because it forces you to confront the reality of your own mortality. But we’re all creating a legacy — whether we mean to or not. Your personal legacy is the lasting impact of your personal values demonstrated by how you made a difference in the lives of those around you. Your legacy encompasses many things, but it’s only when we think critically about our legacy that we gain a greater appreciation of purpose, fulfillment, and history. 

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This is why I recommend taking the same approach to legacy planning as you do with all your life goals: You have to make it an intentional exercise, and actually get somewhere with it! I always like start with these six questions: 

What Are Your Values? 

When thinking about your personal value system, what values do you consider so core to who you are that you can’t define yourself without them? If you’re unsure, take yourself through an exercise to help. Start by writing down all of the value words that best describe yourself. Then, look for themes to see if you can narrow the list. Once you find a more manageable list, rank the values and see if you can identify those that are core to who you are. For example, perhaps you’ll put family, education, community, health, spirituality, and positivity at the top of the list. These core values are often ones that help guide you in times of uncertainty, or when you need to make an important decision. 

Once you identify your core values, you’re ready to take the next step in legacy planning. 

What Is the Impact You’re Looking to Leave? 

Once you’ve identified your priorities, it’s time to think about the impact you want to leave on the people and organizations you value most. 

Perhaps on a micro level, you want to leave a legacy of positivity, so that those around are uplifted. Or on a macro level, you truly want to make a difference in the educational experience at your alma mater, or at your local food pantry for generations to come. Once you hone in on the impact you want to make, you’ll have a better idea of where your resources might best be put to work. 

How Do You Spend Your Time?

Look at your calendar and see how you’re spending the bulk of your time. For example, what are the activities that you’re participating in? Time is the most precious resource we have, and it should not be given away lightly. 

By looking back at your past activities and ahead at your future commitments, try to quantify what percentage of your time is spent at work, with family, with friends, volunteering, running errands, focusing on your health, etc. From there, see if you can spot which of your core values show up in those activities. For example, do education and family show up as part of your time with volunteering? Does health and family show up in your time spent with friends, or time spent cooking family meals together? You’ll start to see patterns emerge that can better guide your roadmap to legacy planning that makes you feel good. 

How Do You Spend Or Save Money? 

Wealth can be viewed as a key tool that can be used to create or further your legacy, both during and after your life. That’s why it’s so important to examine how you spend or save your money as part of this process. Thankfully, tracking our money has become much easier over the years with the help of apps and various programs via our banking institutions that let us categorize all our expenses. 

So, similar to the audit you did for how you’re spending your time, you’ll now need to look at your budget categories to see if they match your values. For example, perhaps you would apply your gym membership to your value of health and positivity, and you’d put your charitable donations into your spirituality and community category.  Maybe the amount you put towards your child’s college tuition gets matched with education and family.

What Do Your Estate Documents Say?

Once you know where you’re saving and spending your money during your life, it’s time to look at where and how your wealth passes when you die. To gain an understanding of how things are set up, collect and review your estate planning documents. It can be helpful to assemble a personal balance sheet to review all of your assets and note how they are titled.  Are they owned by you alone or are they owned jointly with someone? Perhaps they’re owned by a trust, or perhaps this exercise will inspire you to put a trust in place. 

When thinking about your estate plan, don’t limit your review to just your will — because wealth can pass by title, law, or contract. So, in addition to reviewing your will, you’ll want to make sure you examine any trusts (both revocable or irrevocable), that you’ve created or that you’re the beneficiary of, as well as all beneficiary designations from any life insurance policies, retirement accounts, or annuities.   

When reviewing these documents, it can be helpful to have your original list of values and priorities handy so that you can compare whether your estate plan aligns with the legacy you’re trying to build. For example, if you’re looking to create a gift that makes a philanthropic impact on your alma mater, does that show up anywhere?  Or if you want to ensure future generations can afford higher education, are you earmarking part of your wealth to fund this legacy?

There are many questions to ask, but the more you can cross off the list today, the better prepared you and your family will feel. 

How Are You Communicating Your Legacy?

Would your family, children, or friends be able to articulate your intended legacy without you telling them?  We know that real communication occurs not only through our words but also through our actions, which is why it’s so important to see if your time and wealth are being spent in a way that clearly communicates your intended values.  If they aren’t, then it may be time for you to make some adjustments before you begin legacy planning in earnest.

Even if you feel you are consistently showing up and living your values every day, there is no substitute for having open and honest conversations with your heirs about what’s most important to you and how you intend to leave your wealth so there are no surprises when the time comes.  In addition to avoiding potential shocks, this type of candid conversation can also provide your beneficiaries with additional guidance so they can also be intentional about continuing your legacy after you’re gone.  And there’s nothing that can give you quite as much peace as knowing your life’s impact will carry on for generations to come. 


Marguerite serves as chief operating officer of Wilmington Trust Emerald Family Office & Advisory, which provides a robust platform of strategic advisory services and solutions for successful executives, entrepreneurs, and their families. The Emerald team guides clients in the creation, implementation, and execution of complex financial, estate, and succession plans.
In her role as national director of Family Legacy Strategies for Emerald, Marguerite is responsible for the development and delivery of strategic advice offerings that provide personal wealth planning to high-net-worth individuals and their families through the design and implementation of their estate, business succession, and family legacy plans. She oversees a national team of wealth planners, accountants, and family legacy advisors.
Prior to joining Wilmington Trust, Marguerite was an associate in Pricewaterhouse-Coopers’ personal financial services group in their Philadelphia office. She holds a JD and master of laws (LL.M.) in taxation from Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law and earned bachelor’s degrees from the University of Maryland, College Park.
This article is for general information only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation for the sale of any financial product, service, or other professional advice. Wilmington Trust does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. Professional advice always requires consideration of individual circumstances. Wilmington Trust is a registered service mark used in connection with various fiduciary and nonfiduciary services offered by certain subsidiaries of M&T Bank Corporation. © 2024 M&T Bank and its affiliates and subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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