Simply talking about death is hard. Making legal plans for what happens when you die? That can feel impossible.
But the way we write our wills, pass along the assets we have, and make legal plans for our families is changing. Women have long been excluded from handling finances, people of color have been denied the wealth they are owed, and trans and gender non-conforming people are often excluded from entire “traditional” family structures. When you’re somebody who has been historically denied access to generational wealth, because of institutional racism, patriarchy, and classism, confronting the ideas and intricacies of wills can be extremely difficult. To even consider leaving something behind for your family, loved ones, and pets feels like a privilege to most people.
But everybody is gonna die. New organizations like FreeWill are providing free resources and access to anybody and everybody interested in creating a will.
This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to engage with the Women’s Foundation California and dive into their perspective on both wills and feminism through a summer internship. I was able to explore FreeWill, the free will-creating site the Foundation has partnered with, as well as learn about the Foundation’s Ruth McGuire Legacy Circle. Both programs are dedicated to creating a feminist financial future.
While FreeWill does almost exactly what the name says it does – create actual, legal wills for free – the Ruth McGuire Legacy Circle is more complex.
Named after Dr. Ruth McGuire, the Legacy Circle is made up of people who have pledged a certain amount of their assets in all different shapes and forms to Women’s Foundation California and the advancement of racial, economic, and gender justice.
Instead of perpetuating family wealth alone, Legacy Circle members are investing in the collective with a belief that an intersectional feminist future is a cause worth giving to even when they won’t be around to know what exactly it looks like is. This process – as I learned this summer – is called “planned giving.”
In my pursuit of understanding more about planned giving, two members of the Ruth McGuire Legacy Circle kindly let me hear more about why they chose to write Women’s Foundation California into their wills.
Huong, a staff member at the Women’s Foundation California, has an extensive background in philanthropy. While she’s worked in different institutions and as a consultant for organizations, she described her transition to the Women’s Foundation California FC as “the right opportunity with the right people and the right mission and values.” She had never fully considered making a will and leaving a planned gift until the organization partnered with FreeWill. “I didn’t see myself as having assets. It’s not something that I grew up with. We’re a family of refugees and immigrants, low and working class,” explains Huong “Growing up it wasn’t something we talked about in terms of leaving a legacy or leaving behind wealth, even for each other, or even thinking bigger picture for an organization.”
The partnership with FreeWill, as well as the conversations she’s had while working for the Foundation, enabled her to create a will and trust, and leave behind a planned gift. Huong has been giving to local organizations for a long time, so the idea of leaving assets for an organization in her will wasn’t much of a stretch for her. When I asked what inspired her to leave it to the Women’s Foundation California specifically, she said: “I think the connection to the Women’s Foundation, not just as a staff member, but I think that the values and the work of the foundation made it an easy decision to leave funding for.”
And it was fairly easy, using FreeWill, she said. Just as she was considering making financial plans for her child, she was introduced to FreeWill, and “it was plug and play, pretty much…The way that the program is set up, it’s so easy to be able to do.” Reflecting upon the costs of using a private estate attorney instead of the site, she said that she’s “really grateful to have access to a tool like” FreeWill. With it, she was able to make plans for herself and her son, and ensure her planned gift goes to the Foundation to invest in the next stage of our feminist future.
Linda has been associated with the Women’s Foundation California almost since its creation in 1979, when she joined the Foundation’s communications team to help build awareness of the organization. She’s served in many positions since then over the Foundation’s forty years.
“It’s cool to see how the organization has grown in those decades,” she said. “It was kind of grassroots in the beginning, but now I think it’s got some real chops.”
Her longstanding connection with the organization is what inspired her to leave a planned gift. Linda did her estate planning before the partnership with FreeWill. She noted, “I currently donate to numerous nonprofits and do-good organizations, but I thought my planned giving, should have a narrower focus. So I’m leaving four different human rights organizations, including the Women’s Foundation, gifts from my estate after I pass.”
Linda’s legacy gift to Women’s Foundation California is unrestricted, meaning that it’s up to the Foundation to use it how they choose. When asked why she made this decision, she responded, “I don’t think it’s up to me to predict what the needs will be like in decades. Just looking back to last year, with the pandemic, how quickly the Foundation and all nonprofits had to mobilize and respond to the situation. I don’t know what the future holds. I would not want to restrict my funds based on things I don’t know.”
While we can’t see into the future, both Huong and Linda are confident in Women’s Foundation California to navigate whatever comes next. Both women are leaving behind unrestricted gifts, as they trust the Women’s Foundation will know how to use them best. Linda chose to leave her gift to the Women’s Foundation specifically because she believes it will be around long after she’s gone. Huong hopes that one day, philanthropy won’t need to exist, but is comfortable knowing the Foundation can handle it until then.
When I wrapped up our conversations, I briefly asked both Huong and Linda how they think about their own personal legacies. They both had similar answers: they don’t.
“I’m not the important cog in this,” Linda said.
And Huong felt the same way: “I think for me, obviously passing on any values and stuff to my son, that he’s able to carry that into his own giving and life and values…but some legacy for myself isn’t something I’ve thought about.”
My final question to both women was if they identified as a feminist or not. Their answers differed – Linda is passionately a feminist, saying that “I’m a feminist because I’m a woman,” while Huong was unsure: “I don’t know if I actually identify with the label. I definitely carry the values that come with labelling oneself as a feminist, but I never voluntarily self-identify as a feminist.”
Regardless of their self-labelling, these two women are practically and emotionally invested in a feminist future. They are part of a growing network of folks shifting how we think about what belongs in a will and who has one.
Thank you so much to everyone who helped this piece come to life. I am especially grateful to Huong and Linda for their vulnerability and insight throughout this process. Thank you to Mazuri, Liza, the rest of the Development and Partnerships team, and the entire Women’s Foundation California team for your guidance, support, and overwhelming positivity and care for the good that you do.