Life is about far more than the accumulation of material wealth. Working hard and collecting valuables to enjoy and pass on to others at death is nothing to spurn. But there are many other things that are accumulated over a life and can be passed on at death: morals, lessons, memories, stories of hope, words of kindness, inspiration, and countless other values.
When thinking about life transitions and estate planning, it is important to consider those intangibles just as much as those items that have a monetary value. This is why, in addition to creating legal wills and trusts, we work with New York families on “ethical wills” to pass on all of those moral and spiritual items that solidify a legacy.
Advice for the Future — Preventing a War
One common part of an ethical will is the sharing of advice to the next generation. The value of passing on advice should not be underestimated. An extreme example suggests that one of the greatest horrors in human history–World War II–may have been prevented if only a last will and testament was more widely disseminated.
A Daily Mail story last month discussed the will of the former President of Germany, Baron Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg led the nation until his death in 1934. He was widely respected in the country, particularly among the powerful political class.
Recently declassified information suggests that Hindenburg’s last will and testament did far more than dispose of his property. The will also contained very specific advice to his country about the preservation of democracy and limiting the power of the up-and-coming populist leader at the time: Adolf Hitler. Recognizing Hitler’s goal of taking complete control of the government, Hindenburg’s will explained that the country need to maintain established principles, like an independent army and separation of powers. The document was intended specifically to prevent Hitler from fulfilling his ambition. One historian described the will as “a bomb timed to go off posthumously and blow Hitler off course.”
Unfortunately, it did not work out as intended. That is because before the will was made public, Hitler found out about the contents. He immediately ordered the document seized, and the German people never learned of the lessons their statesman wanted to impart. Instead, a forged document was released to the public which wrongly asserted that Hindenburg had nothing but glowing praise for Hitler.
While this example is a bit different than the lessons that many New York seniors wish to impart, the underlying principle stands. Estate planning offers a chance to think wholistically about the meaning of life and how one would like to be remembered by the generations to follow.