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What is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter, or “Ethical Will,” is a special letter from you to your loved ones. Let me give you an example of a Legacy Letter from my personal life.

A couple of years ago, I was spending the holidays with my parents. When the time came to leave, my dad handed me a manila envelope and said “This is for you kids, maybe it’ll help you understand you old man better.” As my husband and I drove away, I opened the letter and started reading. After the first page, I started to cry. It took me several tries, over several days, to read his letter all the way through.

Dad had had a dream that he was talking to one of his kids, and when he woke up he realized that there were things he wanted to tell us. There were things he wanted to make sure we knew. He talked about the things he loved about life and the things he regretted. He talked about his personal history, because he wanted us to understand our own history better. At the end, he wrote a personal note to each of us telling us how we had made him proud and what he hoped for us in the future.

That letter is one of my most prized possessions. The love and advice in those pages have had a strong, positive effect on the way I live and make decisions. When dad passes away some day, I will still have his words to read over and over again.

What do you write in a Legacy Letter? 

In your Legacy Letter, you should tell your loved ones whatever is most important to you that you want them to know. This could be about your past, or about their future. It could be the things you love about them, or the things you hope for them. Some people take this opportunity to say they are sorry, or to forgive old offenses and make amends.

How do I decide what’s most important?

Imagine you have ten minutes to say goodbye to the people you love. What would you tell them? Imagine that 50 years after you are gone, your loved ones still open the letter and read it sometimes. What words do you want them to read?

How long is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter can be very short – only a few sentences – or it can be several pages long. When I work with a client, we’ll talk about what you want in your letter in a 90 minute interview. More can be added later, but usually what comes out of that interview is the bulk of what will be in the letter.

When you write a Legacy Letter on your own, I encourage you to write as much as you can. The more your family knows about you and your history, the more they will know about their own history too. Who knows? You might just go on to write a memoir!

When do I send the letters to my loved ones?

When and how you send your Legacy Letters is up to you. Some people give them as a special gift, some people mail them right away, others may have the letters distributed along with their estate. In any case, you should always keep a copy for yourself alongside your last will and testament.

How much is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter service with me is $800. This includes the interview, revisions, and ten copies on archival quality paper. The real benefit to hiring a professional is that the letter will get done in a timely manner. It took my dad nearly a year to finish his letter from the time he started it. Some people don’t have a year, and putting it off can turn into not writing it at all. Hiring a professional will help you get it off your to-do list and make sure your letter is clear, complete, and printed properly so that the letter can be preserved.

Why should I write a Legacy Letter?

Everyone should tell their story, for posterity. Public records will tell us where you were born and on what day, but only you can tell the world the stories that make you you. Memoirs are ideal, and I talk more about that in What is a Memoir. A Legacy Letter is a small place to start, by telling your loved ones the things that matter most to you. It may seem like a small thing, but it is a priceless gift to the ones who receive it.