Preserving Legacies Beyond Wills: The Power of Legacy Letters

August 1, 2023

purple flowers on paper


In an age where more individuals are starting to recognise the importance of legacy planning, legacy letters, together with the will and lasting power of attorney, become essential tools for a holistic legacy plan. While wills handle the distribution of assets, legacy letters play a very different role, providing the writer the opportunity to explain the reasons behind his/her decisions, share personal stories that shape his/her identity, and create an unbreakable link to one’s family history.  In this month’s FLP article, we shall first explore the nature of legacy letters before we delve into the various ways in which legacy letters are used and how they serve to complement the will.

What are Legacy Letters?

Legacy Letters, also known as ethical wills, are personal and heartfelt expressions that go beyond the legalities of traditional wills. Though such legacy letters are non-legally binding, they nevertheless allow the writers to convey their values, life lessons, personal stories, and emotional guidance to their loved ones, ensuring that their legacy extends beyond material possessions.

Key Purposes of Legacy Letters and how they complement Wills:

Whilst we understand that wills provide a clear direction of how the testator wishes to have his/her assets distributed, legacy letters serve a variety of other purposes. The following is a non-exhaustive list of ways in which legacy letters have been used by its writers and how they deal with issues that would otherwise have not been appropriately addressed in a traditional will alone.

  1. Conveying Unwritten Intentions

While wills do specify which beneficiary receives certain assets, they do not explain the reasons for the distribution of such assets in their respective manner. This could lead to misunderstandings between the beneficiaries who would start to question why specific assets have been left to particular individuals. Such reasons could be included in the legacy letters, explaining why such certain assets had been distributed accordingly, greatly reducing the chances of resentment among the beneficiaries.

  1. Explaining Unequal Distribution

Often, a testator would not be distributing all of his/her assets equally to all the beneficiaries. Indeed, while there are some beneficiaries that are understanding and loving, and count any inheritance as a blessing regardless of their share, there will be others who will find that they have been unfairly treated or that other beneficiaries are undeserving of the inheritance (however large or small). Traditional wills do not include reasons for unequal distribution as such inclusion will only serve to make the will convoluted and confusing and thus, due to the lack of explanation, jealousy and animosity could build resulting in potential conflicts among the beneficiaries over the will. Via Legacy Letters, writers are able to explain in detail (e.g. family tradition, equity instead of equality, et cetera) why the distribution of the assets had been unequal to prevent any misunderstandings that could result in resentment and enmity.

  1. Sharing Unspoken Emotions

While traditional wills focus on the distribution of assets, they often lack a platform for expressing complex emotions and personal sentiments. Unlike wills, legacy letters offer a heartfelt avenue for individuals to convey unspoken emotions, such as deep love, gratitude, and unresolved conflicts. These emotional expressions bridge the gap between legal formalities and human connection, ensuring that heirs gain a deeper understanding of the writer’s feelings, not merely just receiving assets.

  1. Passing Down Values, Wisdom and Cultural Heritage

Traditional wills primarily address the transfer of material wealth, leaving little room for passing down intangible assets. In contrast, legacy letters extend beyond financial matters to transmit values, wisdom, and cultural heritage. While wills outline who receives what, legacy letters offer insights into the writer’s guiding principles, life lessons, and cultural traditions. These letters become invaluable sources of guidance and identity, fostering a multi-dimensional legacy beyond monetary assets.

  1. Providing Personal Encouragement

As traditional wills are transactional documents, they lack the personal touch of encouragement and inspiration. Legacy letters fill this void by allowing the writer to offer personalized words of support and motivation. Unlike wills that focus on inheritance, legacy letters become reservoirs of encouragement, uplifting future generations and guiding them through challenges with the writer’s empowering words

  1. Expressing a Preference without creating a Legal Obligation

Due to its non-legally binding nature, Legacy Letters offer the writer the opportunity to express his/her wishes and preferences to be met on a “best efforts” basis rather than to legally oblige his survivors to act on such wishes. Wishes like “to get along well with your sibling” or “to accept and treat my surviving spouse as part of the family” lose all practical meaning or enforceability as a legal obligation, but are appropriate to be included as a wish in the legacy letter, where it is in the hopes that the survivors will, in light of the writers’ wishes, do their best to accede to it.

  1. Emotional Healing

Legacy letters offer a therapeutic outlet for writers to express their deepest feelings, regrets, and hopes. For both writers and recipients, the act of sharing and receiving such emotions can bring about emotional healing, closure, and a renewed sense of connection. The traditional will, being a transactional document, would not be able to provide a platform for the above.

In essence, legacy letters transcend legal documents, nurturing the emotional and relational aspects of leaving a lasting impact. The non-legally binding nature of legacy letters also means that the presentation and its content of such letters are not strictly limited by legal rules and hence, opened for creative expression.  Through multimedia presentation and diverse content, these letters enrich the tapestry of family history, ensuring that the essence of who we are continues to resonate through time.

Concluding Thoughts

While we cannot stress enough on the importance of ensuring that we have our legal documents like the will in place, we should not neglect that succession planning is more than just a distribution of wealth – it is an opportunity to pass on one’s wisdom and values to the next generation. Legacy letters can complement the legal aspects of the will to ensure that succession planning is a holistic process. More importantly, it sends a clear message to your loved ones – that you truly care.

How can SMTP Help you

Having an experienced hand guiding you through the intricacies of estate law is always helpful. With our wealth of experience in assisting our local and foreign clients with the drafting of their wills, our team is well-equipped with the expertise and knowledge to identify issues that would be more appropriately dealt with in a legacy letter as compared to the will. Our experience also allows us to assist our clients in expressing themselves as accurately as possible, preventing confusion and delivering clarity in to the recipients of the legacy letter.

We also believe in close engagement with our clients, paying close attention to their individual facts and circumstances, and tailoring our advice and courses of action to cater to their specific needs and requirements. SMTP’s core philosophy is to provide bespoke legal advice based on our private clients’ specific needs and requirements, as cases always differ on their fine details. Our team of dedicated staff is ever eager and prepared to assist interested parties. Should you or your clients require any assistance in the drafting of your wills and legacy letters, please feel free to contact our Business Development Team to schedule a consultation. We look forward to working with you.