Ethical Wills – The Modern Practice of an Ancient Tradition

Ethical wills are not new; in fact, they’ve existed for centuries, but I have to admit that even I was not as familiar with them until a recent conversation with a client.

Once communicated orally by men to pass on their values to future generations through their sons, now, ethical wills are written by men and women alike with the goal of communicating personal wisdom and values to the next generation.

When you read someone’s ethical will, you often gain a sense of their personal life lessons they shared as part of their legacy. They articulate important moments in the family history as a way to inform and inspire generations to come.

What is the difference between a will and an ethical will?

A last will and testament details how your financial assets are to be distributed. The role of an ethical will is to complement the legal will with information you would share if you were alive.While ethical wills are nonbinding, they are increasingly used to convey your hopes and dreams for your family while also serving to explain decisions you’ve made in your legal will.  When read alongside the will, an ethical will may help reduce potential conflict within the family.

What other purposes are filled by an ethical will?

Many experts in aging and legacy planning suggest that creating an ethical will can also be a journey of self-discovery. Dr. Andrew Weil, a leading expert on healthy aging, believes that an ethical will can help you learn more about yourself and is relevant for anyone “concerned with making sense of our lives and the fact of our aging.” In some hospice settings, they encourage the creation of an ethical will as a way to help someone experience a sense of life purpose by articulating how they want to be remembered.

Others believe the process of creating an ethical will can help someone come to terms with their own mortality by giving them a way to articulate life lessons and wisdom they want to leave behind.The benefits of creating an ethical are not only reserved for those in the last stages of life. Many people may gain a deeper perspective about themselves and their life’s meaning by creating one.

How are ethical wills used?

  • Upon the birth of a child: Parents write a letter to the newborn expressing their hopes and dreams for the child and the values they intend to reinforce during the child’s life.
  • At the marriage of a child: To emphasize important family traditions you would like to see them carry on in their own family.
  • To direct preservation of family records: Some families articulate the desire to preserve and pass down certain family photo albums or legacy writings.
  • As an explanation of the legal estate plan: In families of wealth, an ethical will is often used to explain the source of the family wealth or to communicate values around the use of that family’s wealth in the world.
  • To document a significant event: When a person experiences a significant life event (especially one that impacted the whole family) they may want to communicate how that event changed their life and perspective going forward.
  • To express love and appreciation: Many parents choose to write a letter thanking their children for the joyful memories and accomplishments they’ve shared as a family. They may use the letter to serve as a reminder of important values through the years. In fact, many U.S. presidents have written letters to their family while serving in the White House.

How do you develop an ethical will?

Typically, an ethical will is a handwritten letter addressed to your children and grandchildren. One suggestion to begin writing your own ethical will is to make notes about your core beliefs and some of the events in your life that led to those beliefs. You may also consider articulating gratitude for important people in your life, which may include family members and close friends.

Other ways to structure your writing include focusing on how your personal experiences may be considered a mirror of larger societal trends. Or, you may want to cite historical events and their impact on you and your family (i.e. in the case of immigration or a pivotal family event). Some people start by simply thinking about the happiest memories they’d like to share with their family.

Consider developing these thoughts over a period of time in order to allow yourself to fully process and prioritize which ideas to articulate in your final letter. There are several good books to consult, including one recommended by AARP, “So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them,” edited by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer.

A more modern concept is for you to create an ethical will using a collection of family photos or videos. In families where conflict may arise, having a video or other way to communicate a personal message directly from you may allow you to more clearly articulate your intentions for your assets and the desire for your legacy.

Writing an ethical will can be a unique way to share your personal life journey with those closest to you. The process of developing your personal ethical will can also provide a sense of life perspective as you take the time to review your life lessons and the impact those had on you and your legacy. Reflecting on your past and providing personal words of wisdom to those who follow may give you a sense of impact and connection to other generations at any stage of your life.