There is a misconception that only those with a lot of money need to plan their legacy. The reality is that whether or not you've accumulated a lot of wealth, your legacy is more than the wealth you leave behind – it is also how you'll be remembered. After all, your legacy should empower your family and future generations to become their best selves. The absence of a well thought-out and communicated plan could leave undue burden on those you’ve left behind.

The true story below highlights one family’s struggle after the death of a loved one.

Wendy's father, Frank*, was relatively young when Wendy's mother passed away. Although both she and her brother were adults with their own families, they worried about their father's well-being, which is why they were relieved when Frank met Joan and got married again. Frank lived his retirement years travelling with Joan and spending time with his children's families and his stepchildren — Joan's two adult children from her first marriage.

Then the unthinkable happened — after a routine check-up and a series of tests, Frank was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer — the prognosis was not good. Within six months, Frank was in a coma in the hospital, relying on a respirator to breathe. The hospital called Frank's closest of kin (his wife, two children and stepchildren) to break the news. The doctor recommended discontinuing life support because Frank would not recover to live his life fully. The family had to make a decision.

It was at this moment Wendy realized that Frank had not ever discussed his wishes with her or her brother. In fact, Wendy realized that she really had no knowledge of any of Frank's desires when it came to his financial legacy or final arrangements.

As the family debated their decision, Joan provided a Power of Attorney for Personal Care document, signed by Frank, and shared that Frank's wishes were to "pull the plug" should his survival ever be dependant on life support. The next two weeks were a blur. Led by Joan, who had copies of all of Frank's documentation, the family held a funeral and subsequently cremated Frank's remains. Per Frank's Will, all of his remaining assets were given to Joan. Frank's cremated remains were placed in an urn, which Joan kept in her home. Wendy and her brother subsequently lost contact with Joan and her children.

Less than two years later, Joan fell ill and passed away, leaving her remaining assets to her children – including the urn containing Frank's ashes. With no knowledge of how to contact her stepsiblings, Wendy no longer had any way to know where her father's remains were resting.

While Wendy and her children have fond memories of their time spent with Frank, they have little left to honour his legacy; Because Frank never discussed his wishes with his children, his remains were never interred and he left all his belongings to Joan, Wendy and her family have no physical mementos or even a burial site to visit at which they can pay their respects.

Your legacy plan: Why does it matter?

It can be unpleasant to think about, but the reality is that no one lives forever. And while that may be the case, there are ways that you can leave an impact that will remain long after you are gone. That impact is your legacy — it's how you'll be remembered in the hearts and minds of those who survive you.

There are many ways to leave a legacy, and it's not only for the wealthy or those with complicated situations. A legacy can be physical (sentimental objects), emotional (memories or traditions) or financial – or any combination thereof. You are never too young to think about how you want to be remembered.

But thinking about your wishes is only the first step — ensuring your wishes are fulfilled the way you envision requires planning and action. Your plan will have a direct impact on your loved ones. Documenting, communicating and acting on your plan is equally important to deciding what you want. It can also help to ensure the wellbeing of your loved ones, reduce conflict and ensure you're not leaving an undue burden for those you've left behind.

Your estate plan: Documenting your wishes

An estate plan defines the purpose of your financial assets. It includes several documents that work together to outline your wishes when it comes to finances and medical care – both during life and afterwards.

Creating your plan requires a team approach. Working with a team of professionals including your financial advisor, as well as tax and legal professionals can help you get started today.

Talk to your family: Communicating your wishes

Even after you’ve created all the documentation for your estate plan, sharing it with your loved ones is critical.

It may be a difficult conversation to have but having the conversation before it’s too late can help ensure that they know what to do should something happen to you. It can help reduce indecision, conflict and stress for your family at a time when you are no longer able to communicate.

Here is some of the important information to share with those you trust:

  • The location of important documents (e.g. location of safety deposit boxes or bank accounts)
  • Contact information for your tax, financial and legal advisors
  • Documentation regarding your wishes for future living arrangements, including wishes for health care if you are incapacitated and funeral and burial wishes (as these decisions are often made prior to accessing the Will)

More than money: Acting your wishes

You don't have to wait until you're old or incapacitated to leave a legacy. The legacy you create also lives in the hearts and minds of those you love today and long after you're gone. The things you do today can leave an impression greater than any money.

Important information:

*All names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

Edward Jones, its employees and financial advisors are not estate planners and cannot provide tax or legal advice. You should consult your estate-planning attorney or qualified tax advisor regarding your situation.