Including Fundamental Values in Estate Planning

sailboat image, fundamental valuesAlthough every family has these fundamental values, not every family is aware of what they are. Sometimes they are assumed and lie dormant until there is a sudden event that shocks the system, forcing the family to address its values and legacy. The shock may be negative – a divorce, a huge financial loss, a physical tragedy or the death of a key family member. The shock may be positive – the sale of a family business leading to significant liquidity, winning the lottery, marriage, an inheritance.

It would, of course, be much better to think about your family legacy before a shock happens. Take the time to focus on what your family stands for, what you would like to transmit to subsequent generations and how you would like your family to partner with the larger community. Intentional legacy planning creates a stronger family unit. It is easier for those entering the family to understand what the values are if the family itself has focused on what the family stands for and begun a plan to implement it.

When learning to sail, a novice starts out in calm water in a boat that cannot overturn. As the skills advance and as the sailor understands the interaction of the compass, the team on board, the boat, the sails, the wind, the weather and the water, the sailor will advance – from a pond to a lake to an ocean and, if very adventuresome, to a trans- Atlantic cruise. As the journey becomes more complicated, so will the team on board, the boat, and the sails. The wind, water and weather will always change, but the compass will always point to true north.

I remember one of the first times I sailed on Cape Cod. I was a teenager and had taken sailing lessons at Stone Horse Yacht Club in a small sailboat known as a Waterbug. It could not tip over, and in the inlet I had enough confidence in my expertise to convince my younger sister that it was safe to crew on my maiden voyage. We never got out of the canal. The cross winds were quite a bit harder than sailing on smooth water in the inlet. There was a restaurant, Thompson’s Clam Bar, on the side of the canal. After watching me turn the boat around in circles and go nowhere for more than an hour a man having lunch went down to his motor boat and towed us out to the open ocean. My sister made us stay out there for 3 hours until she was sure that everyone who had been having lunch at Thompson’s and witnessed my lack of prowess had gone home. By dusk we made it in safely.

Learning to sail is an acquired skill. It takes attention, diligence and practice in different waters. To be very good you must sail through squalls, and you must make plenty of mistakes and then right your course. This is, of course, true in life too. The compass will point to north but getting there requires attention, discipline and practice. If you tried to sail the open ocean without a compass you would be flirting with disaster. If you try to lead your family without a clear understanding and focus of what your fundamental values are, you will be flirting with disaster.

The family of Christopher Reeve is an inspirational example of a family with fundamental values of integrity, generosity, strength and commitment to the community at large include. After his 1995 paralysis from a horseback riding accident, Reeve and his wife formed The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which has contributed more than $48 million to spinal cord research and nearly $15million to quality of life grants.

The Reeves had built in instincts to command a powerful legacy. Christopher Reeve’s father was the poet and scholar, F.D. Reeve. His great grandfather was the first national commander of the American Legion. Christopher was well educated, having attended Cornell and Julliard before beginning his acting career. Ironically, his acting career led him to the role of the superhero – “Superman”- the symbol of strength and vitality. Yet it was his life-changing injury – the shock to an otherwise “charmed” life – that focused his family on its fundamental values and focused the legacy on medical research and philanthropy.

Clearly one of the components of this family’s value was to tackle hard problems and make a significant difference. When faced with such a horrendous shock to the system, Christopher and Dana Reeve did not engage in pity; they looked outward and harnessed their strength to focus on what they could do to find a cure – not only for Christopher, but for all who had suffered spinal cord injuries.

The Reeves used their foundational beliefs and the gifts they had been given and the contacts they had made along the way to raise the awareness of spinal cord injury and harness funds to promote scientific research. They lobbied for increased governmental funding and, notwithstanding tremendous physical adversity, they went on the road to promote their good work. Another shock happened when Dana Reeve (who was also an actress), who had taken over Christopher’s work and foundation after his death at age 52 of a heart attack, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died at the young age of 44. Their children have banded together and moved the legacy forward. Christopher’s son and Dana Reeve’s stepson, Matthew Reeve is very active in the foundation and is also an independent movie producer and director, carrying on the artistic side of the legacy.

The hard working family of Ralph Lauren has instilled the values of hard work, entrepreneurism and striving for success in its next generation. Ralph Lauren was born in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father was a house painter. From an early age he wanted to work hard and achieve business success. Under his picture in the 1957 DeWitt Clinton High School year book is the statement: “wants to be a millionaire”. He showed a flair for fashion and business in his early years in the fashion industry, and that led to The Ralph Lauren Corporation which today boasts $6.9 billion in sales.

His children are carrying these values and legacy forward. His daughter, Dylan Lauren, founded a candy empire. His son, David serves as executive vice president of global advertising, marketing and communications for The Ralph Lauren Corporation.

The Laurens have taken this legacy of hard work and entrepreneurial spirit into their philanthropy. The Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation supports initiatives in cancer care, education and service in underserved communities. The corporation partnered with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to create the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, the only outpatient center of its kind in Harlem. In addition the corporation and its foundation fund: the Pink Pony Campaign (providing proceeds to fight cancer), the American Heroes Fund (to provide scholarships to the children of 9/11 victims), the Polo Fashion School (encouraging educational opportunity through volunteerism and grants), the Ralph Lauren Volunteers (encouraging employee participation in non profit community-based programs), and The Star Spangled Banner (providing the funding for the restoration and preservation of the flag that inspired the national anthem). Dylan Lauren, with her candy empire, partners with charitable organizations and has a special emphasis on charities that support animals.

Public service is the dynastic Kennedy family’s legacy. Their commitment began in this country’s memory with the patriarch and matriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Kennedy who combined their fundamental values of hard work, faith, commitment to family and commitment to the world at large. In spite of enduring and very public tragedies this family has continued to impact the fabric of our country through its commitment to public service and political leadership. The Kennedy family legacy began with very focused, disciplined parents who knew early on what values they wanted to impart and passed them on to subsequent generations who worked through turbulent family and world times to keep the legacy on course.

Not all families have the dynastic power of these, but every family can think about what matters most at its core – what are the values that comprise its “true north” and have been passed down in its DNA and will be passed on to future generations.

Even when the instinct is there, success in transmitting these values to subsequent generations requires intentional strategic planning and begins with an understanding of what the values are that are at the family’s core.

It is interesting to note that the Reeve, Lauren and Kennedy families, along with many of the flourishing families I have dealt with as part of my practice, hold the underlying core value that family is important and that a strong family is essential. A strong family system with shared beliefs will absorb the shocks from the external world and adapt and become more resilient and sustainable each time a new shock (positive or negative) occurs.

Do you have a clear, articulated understanding of what your family’s predominant values are? See “Across Generations: A Five-Step Guide for Creating an Expression of Donor Intent” by Susan Turnbull and Amy Zell Ellsworth for a wonderful discussion of family values. Values they include are highlighted below.

Examples include:

  1. Taking care of, supporting and loving each other (a sense of safety)?
  2. Virtue: Knowing right from wrong?
  3. Faith: Commitment to God?
  4. Patriotism: Commitment to country?
  5. Commitment to cultural heritage?
  6. Military service?
  7. Commitment to philanthropy?
  8. Service to community?
  9. Hard work?
  10. The importance of education?
  11. Creativity?
  12. Individualism?
  13. Public service?
  14. Entrepreneurship?
  15. Perseverance?
  16. Gratitude?
  17. Merit?
  18. Responsibility?
  19. Resourcefulness?
  20. Trust?
  21. Forgiveness?
  22. Generosity?
  23. Thrift?
  24. Wisdom
  25. Communication?
  26. Independence?
  27. Leadership?
  28. Loyalty?
  29. Respect?

Including your fundamental values when establishing your estate plan is vital to creating an estate that will pass the test of time.


Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released her new book, “It’s More Than Money, Protect Your Legacy” available at To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,

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