How to Leave a Legacy When You Don’t Have Children

Courtesy of The New York | By Anna Goldfarb | Illustration by Rebekka Dunlap | Originally Published  07.17.2018 | Posted 08.15.2018

The question of what you leave behind can be especially fraught for people who do not have heirs.

Karen Malone Wright, 62, is well aware of the existential implications of not having offspring. As founder of, a website for childless women — and an only child with no kids herself — she’s never been able to shake the feeling of being last one to turn the lights out.

For some people who don’t have children by choice or circumstance, the issue of leaving a legacy can be especially fraught.

Ms. Malone Wright, who lives in Cleveland, noted that even if you have a child, you have no way to control where your child carries your legacy; it might not be a direction you would choose.

Some try to contribute to the greater good by serving as coaches or mentors or supporting charities. Others aim to make enduring contributions in their careers.

If you’re a nonparent like Cecil H. Green, the founder of Texas Instruments, you leave vast sums of money to the world’s pre-eminent medical and educational institutions. If you’re Beethoven, Luther Vandross or Joey Ramone, you leave a catalog of hits behind. If you’re Julia Child or Frida Kahlo, you inspire future generations through your passions.

However, you don’t have to be rich, a genius or a world-renowned luminary to touch people’s lives for generations to come. Here are some ways to leave a lasting legacy when you don’t have genetic offspring.

Get it in writing

Whatever you decide to do — especially if it involves leaving money or assets to loved ones, institutions or charities — the biggest hurdle is overcoming procrastination and putting a plan in place.

“Put serious thought into what matters to you most in life and do this for yourself, for your own peace of mind,” said M. Eileen Dougherty, an accredited estate planner and president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils.

She recommends individuals procure three essential documents: a valid will that meets the requirements of one’s legal state of residence, a power of attorney and a health care power of attorney. It’s also important to stipulate people as backups.

“If you don’t write it down, the government decides what your estate plan is, so why not take the time to have properly drafted documents and then take them out once a year and see if they still make sense,” she said.

Preserve your family history

Your personal effects may not fetch as much money as Marilyn Monroe’s letters, but sending handwritten letters is a terrific way to record your personality. Share your favorite recipes, write about your experiences and triumphs, put your best life advice in writing. Of course, for your correspondence to serve as a lasting legacy, the recipient must be on board and agree to save what you send.

Kathleen W. Hinckley, a certified genealogist and executive director of the Association of Professional Genealogists, encourages those who do not have children to collate any important family mementos. “Cousins that you may have, or nieces and nephews, might love to receive whatever family heirlooms or history that you have to pass on,” she said.

She suggests being your own biographer: “Write a story, write a booklet, a book, however advanced you want it to be.” Those texts will be preserved, as opposed to, say, a file cabinet full of loose letters and documents. She also recommends digitizing family photographs. Label who appears in the photos and keep the originals in acid-free boxes.

If family members were part of the early history of the area, donate images to a historical society or an archivist. Photos that include a main street or houses that no longer exist could be of interest. “It depends on the image and each historical society will have different guidelines,” she said. “Sometimes a local library will accept family photos and papers if the family resided there for generations.”

Support institutions you find meaningful

Giving money to schools is another way non-parents cement their legacy. But before you write a hefty check or designate part of your estate to your alma mater in your will, discuss your intentions with the institution you have in mind, says Audra M. Lewton, the director of gift and estate planning at Barnard College.

“Call or reach out and have a conversation with somebody there. At a college or university, there’s probably a professional office with staff that does this kind of thing, so it’s a great way to start,” she said. “Find out what’s possible before getting overwhelmed going in your own direction.”

If you choose to set up an academic scholarship in your name, it’s important to keep plans flexible. Ms. Lewton recalled a situation in which a scholarship was put in place at Barnard in the early 1950s to support students who studied stenography, the process of taking notes by hand. “You can understand what the intentions were,” she said. The donor was trying to champion skills that would be useful in the workplace, but it has been quite a while since employers have looked for that kind of expertise.

Champion worthy causes

Whatever drives you — pet charities, various health, societal and environmental initiatives — consider taking a more active role in a cherished cause or leaving money or assets to a worthy organization that reflects your values.

Ginger Mlakar, senior counsel and director of donor relations at the Cleveland Foundation, recommends consulting websites like Guidestarand Charity Navigator to ensure the charity is in good standing.

Another consideration: some organizations, like the American Red Cross, have both national and local chapters. Ms. Mlakar said donors should do their research “to make sure their dollars are going to exactly where they want them to go.”

The most important thing is to have a plan. Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Howard Hughes offer cautionary tales, Ms. Mlakar said, because they died without wills. “What happens in most of those cases, particularly if the estate’s of any size, there’s litigation that pursues, and charities are just left out,” she said.

“Many people associate estate planning strictly with death,” Ms. Dougherty said. “This is really about making sure what you want happens.”

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