FeaturesTop Stories

Legacy Letters: Sharing Your Life Experience

By Norah Machia

Carolyn Hendrickson

There are many ways to share your vision for a better world with your family, and one option that has become popular in recent years is writing a legacy letter, particularly if you’re an avid supporter of a specific cause or organization.

A legacy letter can be a valuable tool for older adults to share their reasons for wanting to make a donation or a bequest to help others, and why giving that support is so meaningful to them.

Writing a legacy letter provides an opportunity for people to reflect on their life stories. Along with sharing family history, these letters also offer the opportunity to pass along “essential lessons learned and hard-earned wisdom” to their loved ones, according to the AARP.

They are a helpful way for people to tell how important experiences during their childhood or adulthood led them to create a lifelong legacy of giving back to their community. The AARP holds virtual workshops for those interested in learning more about legacy letters, and no special writing skills are required.

A legacy letter is a personal statement, not a legal document. It may be passed along to family members while a person is still alive, or after a person’s death. A legacy letter may be in the form of a document, or a handwritten letter.

By giving family members a better understanding of your values, you are passing along the importance of generosity to the next generation, said Upstate Foundation Director of Planned Giving Carolyn Hendrickson.

In fact, it’s very helpful for donors if their children understand the reasons they have chosen to support a particular cause. Some will have a family discussion, while others find it easier to write it out in the form of a legacy letter, she said.

While some people choose to have a legacy letter given to their children after they pass away, those who share it with them at the time of a donation offer the nonprofit organization they are supporting an opportunity to get better acquainted with family members and answer any questions they may have about a particular legacy gift, Hendrickson said.

“We have some donors who have written legacy letters to share their childhood experiences, and what it was about those experiences that created a strong desire to help others,” she said. “Children don’t always know what happened in prior generations.”

The Upstate Foundation, founded in 1976, is a nonprofit entity that receives and administers gifts and bequests in support of Upstate Medical University. The foundation raises money for patient care, healthcare provider education, scientific research, and community health and well-being initiatives.

Donations are made to the foundation for a variety of reasons, including by patients who are grateful for the care they received at Upstate, along with family members who want to show their support for the hospital, Hendrickson said.

“Some donors want to be an agent of change to improve the lives of others” through medical research, or by helping with unmet patient needs, she said. Others support Upstate Medical University because they received their education or had meaningful careers at the facility.

Regardless of their reasons, Hendrickson said she encourages all donors to share their plans with their families, either verbally or in written form.

A legacy letter is a good option for those who prefer to put their thoughts in writing. “It’s easier for many people to write it out rather than explain it directly to their children,” she said.

Hendrickson recalled one Upstate Foundation donor who wrote a legacy letter in which she told her children that she hoped they would continue to support her legacy, but if the cause she supported was not of interest to them, she hoped they would still follow her lead and give back to others in the community.

“It’s a great teaching tool,” Hendrickson said. “Anyone who has received a legacy letter from their parents has held it dear to their hearts.” Legacy letters often convey personal thoughts such as how grateful people are to have so many blessings in their lives, how they worked hard to provide for their families, and how good it felt for them to help others who are less fortunate.

A legacy letter can offer a person the opportunity to reflect upon a particular experience that led them to express their gratitude through a donation, Hendrickson said.

For example, one Upstate Foundation donor wrote a legacy letter to his family explaining why he decided to provide funding to train dogs to become therapy-certified for visits with hospital patients. The donor had a very positive experience with a therapy-certified dog while being treated at Upstate Medical University, and it was important to him that other patients have that same option in the future.

For more information about the foundation: www.upstatefoundation.org

To learn more about writing legacy letters: www.aarp.org