A growing number of retirees are looking to pass along more to the next generation than money and possessions.
Life histories, ethical wills and video recordings are just some of the ways people are leaving their personal legacies for loved ones. Their use is becoming more common and small businesses are emerging to meet the demand.
This sharing of values, wisdom and accomplishments is being encouraged by some financial planners as a complement to traditional estate planning.
"There's an element regarding money, but it is really more about affirming your life as a legacy," says Neal Van Zutphen, a certified financial planner in Mesa, Ariz.
People can convey their personal legacy in any number of styles.
They can be brief or book-length, and may include audio, video and photos. Frequently they take the form of an ethical will - a document sometimes referred to as a legacy letter or family love letter that provides a heartfelt personal message beyond the financial particulars. Some advisers, Van Zutphen among them, even give ethical will workbooks to their clients.
Experts can guide the process, or they can be handled as do-it-yourself projects.
Paul Wilson, a retired psychiatrist in Bethesda, Md., decided to write a memoir so his children and grandchildren would have a fuller understanding of him and of his life in earlier days. It's something he wishes his own grandparents had done.
He expects it to be roughly 60 pages when completed, plus some photographs and newspaper articles. He's considering having it self-published to produce a more polished final product.
Regardless of the final product, the 80-year-old Wilson has found the process a pleasurable one.
"It's therapeutic in that I come out of this learning more about myself - my present and my past," he says. "But the reward is more the experience of allowing myself to wander back to those times, and describe them in words as precise and concise as I can."
The growing interest in this area comes as the population of seniors continues to swell. More websites and books about ethical wills and other forms of personal legacies have appeared, along with entrepreneurial firms to help compile them.
Author Solutions, a self-publishing house with more than $100 million in annual revenue, created a firm called Legacy Keepers a year ago. Drawing on a network of personal historians who conduct telephone or in-person interviews, Legacy Keepers turns the thoughts and recollections of customers into keepsake books or video and audio files. List prices range from $975 to $5,000.
"We're early in the trend, but we think it's going to be huge," says Keith Ogorek, senior vice president at the Bloomington, Ind.-based company. "This feels to me like where self-publishing was a few years ago before it went mainstream."
Members of the Association of Personal Historians also offer personal legacy services through small businesses with names like Celebrations of Life, Looking Back for the Future and Your Story Here Video Biography.
Susan Turnbull, who heads Personal Legacy Advisors in Wenham, Mass., has seen her business grow so much that she farms out some of the writing. Her services also include coaching on how to do your own ethical will, a guidebook and a customized final product in both printed and digital form that typically costs $5,000 to $10,000.
The ethical will concept, she predicts, will be very appealing to boomers as more retire.
"I think baby boomers are going to try to reinvent the end-of-life and the way of growing older the way they've reinvented everything else," Turnbull says.
Dr. Barry Baines, a hospice medical director in Minneapolis and author of a book on ethical wills, is credited with planting the seed for the recent surge of interest after suggesting one to a patient who was dying of cancer in 1997. He had remembered reading a book that discussed Jewish ethical wills, first popular centuries ago in the faith with an emphasis on remembrance and legacy.
Baines is now vice president of Celebrations of Life, which trains people to work with seniors to write ethical wills and life reflection stories.
"We all want to identify meaning and purpose in our lives," he says. "These meanings, be they an ethical will or a life reflection story, are ways that give us a lot of significance and purpose."
Beth LaMie, 64, of Kankakee, Ill., found that the personal history concept struck a chord with her and with prospective clients after being laid off from her job as a software manager for IBM.
After taking classes on memoir writing and creative writing, she founded Write On Track about five years ago. She conducts biography writing workshops, helps clients write ethical wills and writes personal life stories for clients mostly in their 70s or older. Prices run from $300 to $1,500 for ethical wills and into the thousands for life stories as hardcover books.
Personal legacies, LaMie says, provide fulfillment while also amounting to somewhat of a claim for immortality.
"If you have a book about your life story or at least an ethical will," she says, "there's something tangible for future generations to see."