Pass On Your Values

April 9, 2009 01:58 PM

Perhaps because of agriculture's close ties to the land and nature, few industries match its strong moral, ethical and religious underpinnings. In many cases, it is those beliefs and culture that bring the next generation back to the farm after working elsewhere. Yet, as agriculture grows more competitive, even on the farm, values may be buried in the day-to-day scramble to get things done. At risk is the survival of the family's soul.

The Roberti family of Loyalton, Calif., share the common goal of preserving the family heritage, says Kevin Spafford of Legacy by Design. "A tradition that symbolizes their cohesive structure is that the entire family gathers for a noon meal every day."

"It's important to put your family values in writing because if you don't, it may come down to one heir's interpretation over another's about what your generation wanted for the farm," says Dave Roberti, who is transitioning a third generation into the family business. "As we work on a succession plan, we want to put our vision into words so that 15 or 20 years from now, our children can still assess whether they are in line with it." 
Start now. Don't leave it to chance for your descendants and business successors to absorb the values you hold dear, urges Susan Turnbull, author of The Wealth of Your Life. "It is most important to live your life as you want to be remembered. But a legacy letter—often called an ethical will—can serve as a meaningful ‘container' for intentional, enduring and loving communication between generations, even from beyond the grave."

Your legal will distributes the material things we enjoy only temporarily, she notes. "Your ethical will broadens the conversation about inheritance or wealth. It lets you transfer your inner richness with the same purposeful intention. It is a lasting gift to later generations—what we want our children to know rather than to have."

Writing an ethical will shouldn't be an imposing task, Turn-bull adds. It can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a book. You can start small and add as things come to mind, perhaps listening to the breeze rustle the leaves on a field of corn or watching the grain cart fill with soybeans. (See the five steps below.)

To pass along your values through an ethical will, author Susan Turnbull suggests following these five simple steps:

  1. Identify those you wish to address (children and grandchildren, business partners, friends).
  2. Write a brief paragraph that explains your intentions.
  3. Jot down notes about what you'd like to share—themes might include your history, the formation of your values, what life has taught you, your love and hopes for those to whom you are writing. Then fill in more detail about the people who have influenced you, events that affected your life, advice you'd like to pass on, your thoughts and feelings, and why you wrote your will the way you did.
  4. Review your notes and make an outline to help organize them.
  5. Write it. Sign and date it. Put a copy with your legal papers, but keep the file and/or a copy handy so you can update it easily.

Walk the talk. Perhaps the best thing about writing an ethical will is that it causes you to stop and think carefully about your life. "As you define your legacy and the lasting impact you would like to have on your descendants, it gives purpose to your actions and provides direction in making choices about what you do and how you do it," Turnbull says. "You are the first one to benefit because it causes you to slow down and think: Am I walking the talk?"

The legacy you live is the legacy you leave. "What will live beyond you is all about how you are living right now," Turnbull says. "In the end, you are dependent on others for your legacy. You throw the ball and hope someone catches it."

To contact Linda H. Smith, e-mail

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