Building a legacy that will span generations

Knowing what story you wish to tell will enable you to build a lasting legacy.

  • By Dr. Timothy Habbershon, Managing Director, Fidelity Investments,
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What is a legacy?

At the most basic level, a legacy is your life’s work. More specifically, it’s the part of your life’s work that endures through time. Anthropologist Bob Deutsch describes how our lives are filled with the rising and falling action of a well‐plotted story. This self-story is what we equate to our life’s work, and the enduring parts of that story—both the rising and falling—become our legacy.

So, what story are you writing? What story will endure? What is your life’s work? These are legacy questions. When most people think of legacy, what comes to mind are those with large scale social impact, legacies that have grandeur to them, often as a function of the focus of the person who created them. But legacies can and do evolve through our lives, so in that sense we all have some sort of legacy. In their simplest form, legacies are personal memories, the memories we create and leave behind.

Why is building a legacy important?

All human beings wonder what impact they will have after they are gone. By intentionally building a legacy—the only form of immortality in space and time—you make it clear you are committed to having a positive, enduring impact for others to connect with through time.

Whatever the story may be that you wish to tell, actively engaging in the creation of a legacy is a key component of—and may even be the inspiration for—a personalized, comprehensive wealth plan.

How to build a transgenerational legacy

Family enterprising and family wealth can create rich and complex legacy stories—stories of innovation, social impact, and philanthropy. Transgenerational legacy building will inspire families to craft legacies that can transcend time and capture the privileges and avoid the perils families might face.

To create a transgenerational legacy, families must write a story that has two distinct legacy dimensions—family relationships (the relational), and the impact outcomes from family enterprising and wealth (the functional).

  • The relational is how families transcend time through their intimate relationships. Multigenerational unity is sustained by having an emotional engagement with a family vision, and by coming together to create this vision.
  • The functional is how families transcend time through their entrepreneurial productivity, their social and economic impact, their brand and goodwill, their generosity, and the envisioned outcomes that they leave behind for society to build upon.

Coming together as a family unit

You must move from building a legacy individually to building one collectively. Family leaders, particularly those who are entrepreneurs and have been business builders or generators of wealth, often view the future as “their” domain, meaning that they are captains of their own destiny and the destiny of all those on their ship. They generally don’t have a natural impulse to consult others on their plan for wealth or business transfer or on the vision that will build and sustain their legacy.

Now, families are not democracies (he or she who has the gold does indeed rule), nor is a family consensus always necessary or even healthy. But if there is to be a legacy, families should move beyond the individual approach and the hierarchies of authority and responsibility and come together as a family unit. This is especially true for a transgenerational family legacy, for which it takes multiple generations to transcend time. When we become more inclusive, family members have developed a mutual respect and engagement with one another that is not dependent on age, authority, hierarchies, gender, or education—or even who owns the wealth. Looking beyond age, all family members can engage as peers—which gives family members a voice even when they don’t have a vote. This will help next‐generation family members have an “identity connection” to the legacy, which creates the potential for the legacy to transcend time. So, as you initiate family conversations by engaging others to be part of the process, your goal is ensuring that participants come away feeling not only included, but also that they have been given a voice and were considered in the outcome.

Surfacing of existing perceptions and beliefs

To build a transgenerational legacy, family leaders need to know what others in the family are thinking. One way to find out is to conduct conversations in which family members can safely identify and understand each other’s existing perceptions and beliefs. In a family conversation, members should be encouraged to discuss, test, and adapt these views—all without judging one another. Creative legacy building happens when there is synergy between family members as they compare and meld their views of the present and future.

Cultivating collaborative family practices

Collaborating and co‐creating as a family closes the distance between individuals, today and into the future. If families work together in the present to create a legacy plan, that process generates closeness between family members, and therefore engenders unity around the plan. As time moves forward and the family enacts its plan—even across generations—the closeness sustains. Conversely, if there is distance today in the family—meaning there is no co‐creating or collaborating among multiple generations to create a future legacy—then the distance between them will only increase. And here is where things get interesting. If there is relational distance and disconnectedness between the generations of wealth, then the only thing left, over time, is a connection to the money or to trust funds. But it is not the money that creates this problem, it is the distance in the family, today and through time.

A family leader has the power to cause or to close the distance between current and future generations. So if you are aspiring to have a positive legacy outcome, collaborating and co‐creating with those who will be affected by that legacy is key.

Envisioning the future (while living and adapting incrementally)

Envisioning the future begins by encouraging family members to seek their wish. Individuals and families get trapped by their fears, and, as a result, much of our family life is fear‐based. Our living, planning, and even dying are driven by fear. We fear our children won’t live up to expectations. We fear losing control. We fear someone will get more than we do. We fear someone becoming entitled. And those fears can dominate the thinking and planning activities in family enterprising and family wealth.

But stepping outside your fears—and allowing everyone in the family the same opportunity for themselves—by asking “What do you wish?” is an important part of their development and empowers them to be part of the legacy.

Watch for opportunities to further the family conversation

Keep alert for moments or opportunities that may act as an entrée into the family conversation. One strategy is to be mindful of subtle but significant questions at the moment they are asked. These are questions that can open doors to larger issues, even when posed by the very young. When the next generation shows interest in a social cause, a business arena, or a family vision that excites them, are you seizing the moment and exploring their view of the world and what future interests they have? There are larger life transition moments, such as engagements, weddings, the births of grandchildren, sickness, and death, or making a significant change like selling a business, changing a will, or starting succession and estate planning. And of course, there are countless moments that arise in everyday interactions and conversations that we often miss or take for granted. All these are opportunities to further the family conversation.

So, family leaders need to be mindful watchers for these moments so they can open a family conversation today about legacy issues of the future. If family leaders do not take advantage of these opportunities, in the future they will very likely be having crisis conversations, instead.

Transgenerational legacy building is all about engaging the family conversation and capturing the privileges life affords us—while avoiding the perils—in order to live life well. Because one’s legacy is the governing influence of a comprehensive wealth plan, a wealth planning professional can help guide the creation of a legacy and the sometimes difficult family conversations that are so central to the process.

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The information presented above reflects the opinions of Tim Habbershon, adviser, Family Office Services, as of 05/12/2016. These opinions do not necessarily represent the views of Fidelity or any other person in the Fidelity organization and are subject to change at any time based on market or other conditions. Fidelity disclaims any responsibility to update such views. These views may not be relied on as investment advice and, because investment decisions for a Fidelity fund are based on numerous factors, may not be relied on as an indication of trading intent on behalf of any Fidelity fund.
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