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Retirees turn more attention to personal legacies

A growing number of retirees are looking to pass along more to the next generation than money and possessions. Life histories, ethical wills, and videos are just some of the ways people are leaving their legacies to loved ones. And businesses are emerging to meet the demand.

This sharing of values, wisdom, and accomplishments is 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 planner in Mesa, Ariz.

It can be brief or book-length and may include audio, video, and photos. Frequently there is an ethical will — a document, sometimes called a legacy letter, that provides a heartfelt message beyond the financial particulars.


Experts can guide the process, or it can be a do-it-yourself project. Websites and books have appeared, along with entrepreneurial firms.

Author Solutions created a firm called Legacy Keepers. Drawing on a network of personal historians who conduct phone and in-person interviews, Legacy Keepers turns clients’ thoughts and recollections 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. ‘‘This feels to me like where self-publishing was a few years ago before it went mainstream.’’

Members of the Association of Personal Historians offer personal legacy services through small businesses with names like Celebrations of Life, Looking Back for the Future, and Your Story Here Video Biography.

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.


Baines is now vice president of Celebrations of Life, which trains people to work with seniors to write ethical wills and life reflections.

‘‘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 concept struck a chord with her and with prospective clients after she was laid off from her job as a software manager. 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 life stories for clients who are mostly in their 70s or older. Prices run from $300 to $1,500 for 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.’’

Dave Carpenter writes for the Associated Press.