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The Most Important Things to Leave Behind in Legacy Planning

My boss Chris writes a rather regular column over at Business Times but took a break last month due to a family matter. Here is what he wrote to make up for it.

Here is the link to the original article.

I did not write for this column last month. My mum passed away and when I asked Genevieve Cua, Wealth Editor of The Business Times, if I could delay my submission, she suggested that I should take a break which was good advice.

Mum was precious to me, and I needed time off to grieve. My mum had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for more than a decade and being warded in the hospital was a regular affair for her. But about 8 months ago, they found a 2.2 cm malignant tumour in one of her lungs. We were devastated but since mum was too old for treatment, there was nothing the doctor could do. We simply prayed that it would not grow too rapidly and hoped that mum would have a few more good years with us.

Then in February this year, just after Chinese New Year, mum got warded again. Her tumour had grown to about 8 cm in size. But she was still strong and not in too much pain or maybe she was but was just enduring it. After some discussion, my siblings and I decided to put mum in palliative care, and we started getting things ready at home. We bought an oxygen concentrator, wheelchair, hospital bed, air mattress and even found a helper to aid us in the caregiving when we expected mum to weaken in the months to come. But before all these things could happen, mum passed away suddenly on March 14.

My mum had been a homemaker all her married life. She took care of everything at home and even though we were poor, we never felt we lacked anything. Somehow, she could magically maximise every dollar that my father gave her. When I was young, I would always remember mum going to the wet market in the later part of the morning. She would buy vegetables that were not wanted, and fish that were not sold at a much cheaper price.

But because mum was such a great cook, we gobbled up everything she whipped up. Mum also could sew very well. She collected hand-me-downs from others and altered them so that we could wear them. As my father was a bus driver and always working, mum was the disciplinarian at home. She made sure we grew up with the right values and never hesitated to cane us when we misbehaved. And when it came to studies, mum was always encouraging and all she asked of us was to pass our exams and progress to the next level.

She knew the importance of giving us a wonderful childhood. At my mum’s wake, relatives, old friends, and neighbours came and paid their last respects. Tears were shed and many shared about how they remembered the kindness and generosity of my mum and how she had blessed them.

Some spoke about how welcoming my mum was when they came to our little 3-room flat at Kim Keat Avenue. Others spoke about how mum helped to care for their children (without taking a cent) when they went to work despite her being poor and having to cope with 4 kids of her own. Many talked about how they will miss her cooking.

After my mum’s funeral, we went to pack up her room and it was then that I realised how little mum had. A few pieces of clothing, some simple jewellery, stacks of photos with dad and a collection of her embroidery work. A few years before her demise, mum had already taken out the little money she had in her bank account and distributed it to her grandchildren. Somehow, she knew she would be gone soon. Mum gave her life (and her possessions) to her children and grandchildren and kept almost nothing for herself. Yet, the legacy she left behind and the impact of her legacy was tremendous.

In my industry, legacy planning has often been associated with the use of wills, trusts, offshore holding companies and the sale of universal life insurance or life insurance in general. It is no wonder when an ultra-high-net-worth individual came to see me some months ago for legacy planning, he said that when he went around looking for advice, “everyone was just trying to sell me something”.

Yet, these legal structures and financial products are simply instruments to help execute the legacy we want to leave behind. For my mum, there was no need for them at all. Not just because she wasn’t wealthy, but because her legacy was the memories and values that she left behind and the possessions she had given away in her lifetime. To me, my mum executed her legacy plan (not that she had a written one!) perfectly because each time she gave, we knew her reasons for giving and her love and values were clearly expressed through those gifts.

As a result, the family remains harmonious even though the gifts to each child/grandchild may not be equal in amount. Her financial gifts to us were a token, an expression and not a measure of her love. Sure, for some of us, we may still need to use legal and financial instruments, but they must only come after carefully considering the legacy we hope to leave behind.

The intention must come first, not the products. That is why the first question we always ask our clients is “what do you wish to achieve?”.

On the afternoon after my mum’s cremation, my siblings found a stash of cash amounting to about S$3,000 in my mum’s drawer and so we distributed it among ourselves equally. I have put aside the money as well as the last red packet my mum gave me during this year’s Chinese New Year with no intention of spending it. Because when I look at them from time to time, they remind me of my mum, the person that she was. That is what our gifts in our legacy planning must do.

The past 2 years have been a difficult period for me as I go through life transitions. My dad died right after the circuit breaker period. Then about 4 months ago, my father-in-law left us. And in February this year, my daughter left Singapore for her studies.

As I thought about my life over the past 2 years, it was the memories spent with each one of them that came to mind, not the exponential business growth or how we navigated the financial markets and made money for clients (and myself). Not that our careers and making and investing money are not important but ultimately, they must be enablers to the legacy we want to create.

A few days before my daughter flew off to Melbourne for her undergraduate studies, she visited her “Ah Ma” at the hospital for she knew it would be the last time she would see her alive. As she was leaving, her Ah Ma told her in Mandarin: “Go focus on your studies, don’t worry about me, I’m fine”. That will be one of the legacies that my mum leaves her: Her love for others and always putting others above herself. Nothing to do with money or legal structures.

I thought it is meaningful enough to share it with you here. What he wrote hit home with me on a couple of different levels.

The first was that it is beautifully written.

On a different level, my colleague and I often have deep discussions and debates about which sort of legacy planning devices would be most ideal in dealing with what we recommend to our clients. I would have enough mental knots about how to create fundamentally sound legacy solutions.

I eventually realize that… the people planning for their legacy REALLY need to know the kind of legacy they want to leave well. Your intentions need to be rather clear at least to yourself first. We have enough prospects and clients struggling with this planning due to their struggles and apprehensions about communicating with their family members about what they have and their intentions with it.

If you are clear, some ideal structure that matches close to your wishes can be created.

The products that you consider are just cold, general products on their own, marketed by the insurance companies. People are often appealed by the investment returns potential, the multiplier effect and leverage potential.

But often we realize in their search for products, they forget what is the important aspect of legacy planning to focus on.

Christopher Tan is CEO, of Providend Ltd, Singapore’s first and probably sole fee-only comprehensive wealth advisory firm. He is also the author of the book Money Wisdom: Simple Truths for Financial Wellness. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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