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Lasting legacies can involve much more than money

Our parents, all deceased, left us their life savings when they passed away, not a huge but also not an insignificant amount.

But their biggest gift, and what we treasure the most, is the example they set. They instilled in us the value of thrift and discipline, and the courage never to give up.

That kind of legacy, having to do with deeper emotional issues rather than just money, is the most important by far to Baby Boomers and their parents, a new study shows. But although both age groups say they talk about these topics, most of their conversations are not happening in a truly meaningful or productive way, the study found.

The Allianz American Legacies Study, commissioned by the financial services firm Allianz and designed by Age Wave, a San Francisco-based think tank, is based on interviews with 1,282 Baby Boomers - ages 40-59 - and 1,345 elders, those 65 and over. Being between those age groups, we can identify a bit with both.

While the study uncovered some generational legacy gaps, both groups agreed on this most important point: A true legacy is not so much about an inheritance as it is about the memories, lessons and values you teach your children over a lifetime.

“We are not silly. We are not saying money and wealth and property don’t matter,” said Ken Dychtwald, president of Age Wave. “But they don’t matter nearly as much as values and life lessons.”

For us, those values and lessons included the determination to persevere and start anew after our families left communist Cuba in 1960, leaving virtually all our possessions behind. In Georgina’s case, her parents’ spirit of adventure and desire to see how people lived all over the world inspired a career in and passion for travel writing.

For the survey, the research firm Harris Interactive asked participants to rate four pillars of legacy: values and life lessons, personal instruction and wishes to be fulfilled, personal possessions of emotional value, and financial assets or real estate.

Values and life lessons was the overwhelming No. 1 choice, selected by 77 percent of both Boomers and elders as “very important.” And while 39 percent of the elder generation said it is very important to pass financial assets or real estate to their children, only 10 percent of Baby Boomers said they felt that way.

Even among this group, not one person picked financial assets as the most important pillar.

“Not one,” Dychtwald emphasized. “That’s unbelievable,” he said, considering how we often hear Baby Boomers can’t wait to get their hands on a collective $7 trillion-plus they stand to inherit.

Another intriguing finding: Among the Boomers whose parents had died, fulfilling last wishes and distributing personal possessions were five times more likely to have been the greatest source of family conflict than splitting any inherited money.

“You may not be able to divide a ring or a credenza, but by talking about what matters to you” and your wishes, you can avoid unnecessary conflicts, Dychtwald said.

The problem is that both elderly parents and adult children often feel uncomfortable discussing inheritance issues.

Most elders would like to tell their children how they want to be remembered but say they are never asked. The adult children would like to ask but are not sure how. A solution: Focus the conversation around the four pillars of legacy, not just money.

“Despite these pillars being so important, less than one third of boomers and elders have discussed all of the elements above,” the study found. But they both embraced the idea of leaving a legacy, because “it captures all facets of an individual’s life, including their family traditions and history, life stories, values and wishes,” said Mark Zesbaugh, CEO of Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America.

“Inheritance is about death, legacy is about life,” Zesbaugh said.

Our suggestion, both to elderly parents and adult children: Clip this column out and use it as a way to get the conversation started.

Humberto Cruz can be reached at AskHumberto@aol.com and Georgina Cruz at GVCruz@aol.com.