When the filmed version of “Hamilton” debuted on Disney Plus recently, it reignited interest in the widely acclaimed Broadway play about America’s “10-dollar founding father.” Along with its resurgence in the public consciousness came a fresh set of questions about the work’s portrayal of American history and Hamilton’s legacy. It is this idea of legacy — and more specifically who defines it — that closes out the show with the finale performance of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”
It calls back to lyrics from an earlier song during which George Washington tells Hamilton, “You can’t control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” These themes of control and legacy are not confined to the broader context of American history, but also apply on a personal basis to each one of us. On an individual level, there are plenty of things that seem beyond our control, especially as we navigate life in a time of viral and systemic pandemics. There are tangible steps we can all take to protect our loved ones, provide for the future, and preserve our legacies.
The COVID-19 crisis has made people, especially those in their later years, think more about the importance of establishing their wills and estate plans. As a matter of fact, all of the local estate attorneys we have spoken with are reporting that they have seen an increased demand for their services since the pandemic began.
It is commonplace for many of us to avoid estate planning for a whole host of reasons, including avoidance or procrastination, the belief that it is strictly for older adults or those with lots of money or property, or simply because we don’t know where to start. We can start by writing a will. August was national “Make-A-Will Month,” serving as a reminder that it is never too early to start thinking about estate and legacy planning.
While it is just one of several legal documents you might consider, a will is the centerpiece of any estate plan. Anyone who has personal property should have a will. There are many online resources for writing a will and estate-planning attorneys are increasingly offering remote will-drafting services that make the process quicker and more convenient.
By making a will, you can accomplish the following:
1. Say who will oversee the execution of your estate plan
It is important to appoint an executor or executrix — and ideally a back-up — whom you trust to carry out your wishes. Communicating your decision before you finalize any documents will help you to gauge whether an individual is prepared to take on such a role.
2. Name guardians for your children — and pets
For children or dependents under 18, you can appoint legal guardians. You can also use your will to have a say in who will look after your furry friends if they outlive you.
3. Provide for your loved ones
Making a will allows you to define how your assets will be distributed — and to whom — upon your death. It is especially important to consider that the law states that only spouses or blood relatives can automatically inherit if there is no will. Through your will, you can provide an inheritance not only to immediate family but to step-children and other dependents, your partner if unmarried, and “chosen” family and friends. Articulating your final wishes through your will can also spare your loved ones from having to fill in the blanks during a time of grieving when you are gone.
4. Support your favorite charities
You can use your will to direct bequest gifts to your favorite charitable causes. You have the option to specify a fixed amount, percentage, or asset to transfer to charity upon your death. It is also common to name charities as residuary beneficiaries (to receive remaining assets after all others are divided up among primary beneficiaries) or contingent beneficiaries. Giving through your will is also a simple and straightforward way to define your charitable legacy and make a lasting difference for future generations.
5. Support your community
A growing number of community members are recognizing the importance of keeping their charitable dollars in Central New York as wealth-transfer projections predict unprecedented levels of wealth passing from one generation to the next, much of it leaving the community to heirs living out of town. A study commissioned by the Central New York Community Foundation estimated that if a 5 percent portion of those assets transferring between generations were donated to endowment funds, more than $55 million in grants would be available annually to support our region’s nonprofit organizations. This kind of boost could provide a permanent source of funding for local organizations and causes that will greatly improve the lives of our friends and neighbors.
Estate planning is essential for a very specific reason: without it, decisions about your medical care, property, and final arrangements will be made without your input. The same is true of legacy planning. If “estate” is used to describe all of our tangible possessions, then “legacy” describes all the intangibles we can choose to pass down or pay forward. Everyone leaves a legacy and, in truth, our legacies are defined by how we live. What we do today will impact how we are remembered in the future. We may not be able to control who lives or dies, but we can control who tells our story. We can tell our own story and even help write the epilogue — by passing down our values to children and grandchildren, by sharing our personal and family histories and life lessons, and by leaving meaningful and lasting gifts to loved ones, community, and charity.
Jan Lane is development officer at the Central New York Community Foundation. In her role, she supports charitable planning for individuals, families, and companies, as well as facilitates the foundation’s legacy planning program. Contact Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org