How To Determine Your Legacy In Life… Before Your Death

What Issues Will Your Family Confront After Your Death, And How Will It Shape Their Opinion Of Your Life? Discover How To Put Your Legacy In Life On The Right Track…

Key Ideas

  1. The dire consequences of not setting up a proper estate plan.
  2. The simple steps to putting your affairs in order.
  3. How to create a legacy that benefits you today… and in the future.

Nobody wants to leave a burden to loved ones after they die.

You want to be remembered fondly.

You want your life and the things you leave behind to stand as a positive legacy to your life. But will it?

Unfortunately, I learned about this the hard way. I have a sad story to share with you so you can avoid making the same mistakes my family made.

It all began when my father-in-law passed away six months prior to writing this article. He was a good man, in excellent health, and his death came unexpectedly at an early age.

Prior to his passing, Tom had many good intentions.

He planned on cleaning up wounded family relationships, but those relationships were left painfully incomplete. The remaining family members were left to struggle in an effort to find closure.

He planned on getting his accounting records together and filing several years of delinquent, back taxes. His children were left with the impossible task of preparing tax returns with incomplete records. They had to personally sign and take on liability for those back taxes.

He planned on living long enough for Medicare to replace the health insurance he dropped because it was too expensive. He didn’t make it. His children were left to negotiate and settle the medical bills that devoured a lifetime of savings and bankrupted his estate.

He planned on cleaning out the storage locker and garage filled with outdated and worthless junk. Instead, his children had to take time away from family and business to clear the clutter he never took care of.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle for me; it’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”– George Bernard Shaw

He planned on organizing his financial affairs and assembling an estate plan with updated beneficiaries. Instead, he left another mess with contradictory documents and incomplete estate plans that placed family members at odds with each other.

He planned on taking care of all his messes. He never thought his time was up. Nobody ever does, and that’s the point.

He planned on living longer and eventually getting around to these things, but he never did. Life had a different plan for him – and his children.

Legacy in Life Image

He was a bright, intelligent, good-hearted man who left a lousy legacy – so lousy, it brought my wife and I to the brink of emotional and physical exhaustion after more than half a year of full-time work and stressful decisions settling his affairs.

That was his legacy to us, and it left an enduring, tragic aftertaste.

Please, please – don’t do the same thing to your loved ones.

How To Make Sure His Legacy in Life Won’t Be Yours

There are several lessons we can learn from my father-in-law.

The first lesson is there will never be a convenient time to put your affairs in order.

Nobody wants to confront a storage locker full of junk, or pay an expensive lawyer to create an estate plan. It’s never convenient.

For that reason, we mistakenly put off these things because something else is always more pressing.

We believe we’ll live forever, and 99.9% of the time, we’re right. Every morning we wake up again and our procrastination has caused no pain.

But suddenly and unpredictably, there are no more tomorrows, and then it’s too late. Your legacy in life is set in stone. The clock has stopped and you can’t turn back. What’s done is done.

More importantly, what isn’t done will be left for your family to do. They have no choice. Your responsibility becomes theirs.

Look at all the unfinished business in your life that drains your energy. Clutter in the house, old junk, delinquent taxes, disorganized records, financial messes, wounded relationships, and more.

Anything that takes energy from you or causes you stress qualifies for this list.

The reality is none of these energy drains go away when you die. Instead, you pass them on to your loved ones. These energy drains are your legacy because your loved ones get to clear them up.

If you think they’re difficult for you to deal with, just imagine how hard it will be for your children or surviving spouse. They’ll have to add these energy drains on top of the emotional distress of your passing and their already busy, full lives.

Setting up your estate plan while living is a relatively simple matter for you to complete compared to the burden you might otherwise pass to your family. Don’t force them to settle an improperly organized estate through the legal process.

Not acting responsibly up front passes on a burden magnified ten-fold, and can multiply costs similarly.

The burden isn’t just financial, either.

Sure, costs can be higher and complications can increase. That’s nothing compared to the emotional stress of balancing the needs and wants of various family members with the wishes of the deceased when things aren’t properly documented.

It’s not okay for anyone to leave that burden to his/her loved ones.

Trust me… I’ve been there, and it’s horrible. It sucks!

The Advantages To Putting Your Affairs In Order … Now

“When you have told anyone you have left him a legacy the only decent thing to do is die at once.”– Samuel Butler

The primary rule I learned from my father-in-law’s death is that there’s no better time than the present to put my life in order.

Some day I will die, and everything will be passed on to my loved ones – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Whatever I don’t take care of now will become their burden, and I have no intention of leaving a burdensome legacy. Do you?

Putting my life in order includes the following:

  1. Clean up relationship clutter: Don’t leave open wounds. Seek completeness in all relationships so that if you or the other person were to die today, there would be nothing left unfinished or unsaid. Do you have any relationships where that isn’t true? Clean them up starting today.
  2. Clean up all physical clutter: My family’s rule is if we haven’t used it in a year, and we can’t see any reason why next year should be any different, then it’s time for that item to find a new home. If it isn’t useful or beautiful, then it’s gone because it’s clutter. No storage lockers, no boxes full of unused belongings, no overstuffed closets. Anything not actively being enjoyed takes more energy than it gives. Less is more. Get rid of it.

There are five ways you benefit from getting both physical and emotional clutter out of your life:

More Energy: Imagine an invisible thread connecting you to every item in that messy garage and overstuffed closet. These threads take energy. Listen to your negative self-talk every time you look at the mess. When you release this unused stuff, a weight will be lifted from your shoulders.

More Money: Our family has made thousands of dollars selling items we no longer use on Ebay or Craigslist. We’ve also donated thousands of dollars in valuables to charity. Not only do the cash and deductions feel good, but more importantly, the choice to live responsibly by possessing only what we use feels even better.

More Time: Clutter wastes time. A closet containing only the few clothing items you enjoy wearing is better than a closet overstuffed with clothes you rarely use. An organized garage that allows you to walk around and find everything quickly and efficiently is superior to a garage overstuffed with seldom used things that get in the way. Time spent searching through clutter is time wasted.

More Joy: My mother gave my daughters a beautiful, fancy dollhouse with all the furnishings from her personal collection. She could have left it as an inheritance after she died, but why let it sit unused? The joy and excitement on my kid’s faces as they play with this dollhouse proves what a unique and irreplaceable gift this was from Grandma. What things are you still holding on to that could bring joy and happiness to someone you love right now?

First-Rate Legacy: When you pass along an organized estate free of excessive clutter, you impart a wonderful gift to those you love. When you pass along a disorganized, cluttered estate, you’re merely shifting the burden of cleaning up the mess from you to your loved ones.

  1. Be responsible in the present: Beyond the emotional and physical clutter that must be cleaned up lies the everyday business responsibilities of life. Carry proper medical insurance, file your tax returns, and maintain organized records because on some unknowable date in the future, you’re 100% certain to die. When that occurs, a trusted loved one will have to file the final tax return, pay your medical bills, and sort through all your paperwork in order to finalize your affairs. Try imagining walking into your office with the job of sorting out your estate, and you have no clue what to expect or where anything is located. Is everything organized in one place and carefully labeled so that it’s duh-obvious with no experience is required? Can a person of reasonable intelligence with no background or foreknowledge find all the documents and determine who the necessary contact people are?
  2. Be responsible to the future: Create one and only one estate plan. Complete the process by funding the trusts and assigning beneficiaries so that you leave a clear, unambiguous message to your heirs. Don’t leave it half or poorly done. Do it right even if it costs a lot of money and is a total hassle. It will be cheaper and easier now than later. It reduces the confusion and risk of family conflict to a minimum. While you’re at it, establish clear medical directives and powers of attorney to minimize the burden on loved ones should difficult medical decisions be required.

None of these issues are fun to deal with, but they’re an essential part of living with integrity. Additionally, they have two large advantages – present and future.

The present advantage results from dealing with the clutter of your life now rather than later. This removes the energy drains now and frees up your time and money resources to focus on moving your life forward with greater joy.

You’ll feel the freedom and lightness of being that comes with an uncluttered life while you’re still around to enjoy it.

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”– William Shakespeare

The future advantage is the high-quality legacy you’ll leave behind after you die. You’ll be able to pass with peace of mind knowing you did your best to minimize the inevitable burden for your family members.

Your family will respect you even more in your passing because the responsibility and love you showed toward them by preparing your affairs to ease their burden will be obvious for everyone to see.

It’s the legacy I believe we all want to leave.

Determining Your Legacy in Life Before Your Death Image

The Burden is Either Yours Or Theirs

If you’re thinking to yourself that this is just too much to deal with right now, then I suggest standing in your kid’s or spouse’s shoes.

Feel their pain of loss upon your passing. A hole has been opened in their lives that nobody can fill. They are grieving while trying to maintain lives already busy with kids, careers, and personal interests.

Now imagine how impossibly busy and overwhelmed their lives will be when forced to take on the very things you didn’t want to work on yourself.

If it’s too much of a burden for you to confront, just imagine what an impossible burden it will be for your children when they have to deal with it. Is that the legacy in life you want to leave?

“But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”– Benjamin Franklin

Learn from my family’s experience. Recognize that your life today is creating a legacy for tomorrow.

If you died right now while reading this sentence, what would your legacy be? What unfinished business do you have? What relationship and physical clutter would you leave for others to deal with? How difficult would your estate be to settle?

If the support and accountability of a personal financial coach would help you confront these tasks and succeed at getting your affairs in order, then I’m ready to lend a hand. Now is the time to secure your life’s legacy. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

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Todd, thanks for sharing this instructive and sobering tale. My immediate family has a pretty good track record for estate planning and *still* it has been overwhelming dealing with these details, when the time came for us. I cannot imagine what you and your wife have been through. But it's wise and generous of you to turn the experience into something we can all learn from. Thanks again.

Irwin Blank
Irwin Blank

Todd, your personal story regarding your father-in-law really brought your points home with me.

One of the major weaknesses I have that my wife shares, is the collection of stuff to the point where every closet, book shelf, table and open space at home is “stuffed out”.  Your comments on removing clutter and getting motivated to do this by recognizing what a burden it would be for your loved ones to do it after you are gone really resonated as truth that needs to be understood and acted on. 

Thank you for continuing to share your wisdom with all of us. 

If this is the type of practical wisdom in your group coaching course, I cannot wait to get started.


Irwin Blank

Financialmentor moderator

@Irwin Blank Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Irwin! Yes, people have no idea how much time and difficulty is involved in sorting through another person's belongings, most of which have minimal to no value for anyone except the person who left them behind. It is just hard work for your loved ones to sort out. Very difficult.


What an honest and well written article.  Excellently done!


The biggest irony around estate planning is that it takes so long, is expensive and needs to be constantly updated.

I recommend that, like anything that needs to be maintained, that you put it on a yearly schedule. Make it a part of your spring cleaning! Once you get the initial work done, the rest isn't that bad :)

Financialmentor moderator

@InSpiritFinance I agree that the hardest part is always the first time. There are so many unknowns to deal with and hurdles to overcome. Once the initial work is out of the way it is far easier to maintain. 

With that said, I'm concerned about scaring people away with the "annual maintenance" idea. My experience says it is only necessary to revisit your plan when a significant change occurs in your life that would impact that plan (death, birth, change of asset position, change in law, etc.).