Beyond Possessions and Assets: Creating an ‘Ethical Will’

Ethical wills have a history dating back thousands of years, and were first recorded in the Old Testament, when Jacob gathered his sons and instructed them on living a good life. Unlike a traditional will, which specifies how you want your possessions and assets to be distributed, an ethical will or legacy letter is not a legal document. Its purpose is to pass on life lessons, moral/ethical philosophies, deeply held beliefs and values, acquired wisdom, and traditions, to children and other loved ones.

While not legally binding, it may be helpful to include an ethical will in your estate planning. A positive and loving personal message can help circumvent potential family conflicts, and express what legal documents can’t. Ruminating on your values can also guide you in making choices about where you wish for your assets to go, and how that reflects the legacy you want to leave.

There are no rules in how you shape your ethical will, how long you write, what format you choose, or what you include. It can be a simple story of gratitude for life and how you’ve lived your values, or can have a specific focus, such as:

  • Family roots and histories
  • Parenthood, hopes and dreams for your children and future generations
  • Important personal values
  • Faith, belief, spirituality
  • Successes and struggles in living a moral life
  • Both joyful and painful memories and experiences, and what you learned from each
  • Triumphs, failures, and resilience
  • Asking for or expressing forgiveness
  • The value of sharing, giving back, and committing to causes

Ethical wills, originally an oral tradition that evolved into a written one, have been following a technology-forward trend, and are being created via video, DVD, digital scrapbooking, or PowerPoint. There are iPhone storytelling apps, like Storycatcher, that provide a video template and interview tips. As engaging as digital storytelling might be, there’s always the possibility that forms of tech may become obsolete, while the written word is enduring and easily accessible.

After 9/11, when the world was grieving and gripped by uncertainty, many people turned to ethical wills to provide messages of love and advice, and even hired “legacy facilitators” to help craft their messages.

If you’re thinking an ethical will isn’t worthwhile because you aren’t “important” or accomplished enough – well, that’s just not true, said Debby Mycroft, founder of Memories Worth Telling. “You don’t have to be a war hero or a Nobel Peace Prize winner for your story to have value,” she said. “When people accept awards at the Olympics, they thank the people who had an impact on their life, like mom or dad.”

An ethical will shouldn’t be critical or chastising; it “should be a love letter from the heart so people can share who they are,” said Barry Baines, author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.

Baines added that preparing an ethical will is also a chance for self-reflection. “Putting together an ethical will early on helps you live life with more intention,” he said.

Andrew Weil, MD, author of Healthy Aging, agreed that ethical wills help us document our history, understand our values and ideals, and even accept our own mortality in the process of creating something that lives on after we’re gone. They’re important to those of us “concerned with making sense of our lives and the fact of our aging,” he said.

Not all ethical wills are intended to be read after death; you may want to share it with your children, partner, or other loved ones in the present.

Some tips for creating an ethical will:

  • Start with an outline of ideas to choose from. This could be a great opportunity to talk with your parents, siblings, or other family members, exchanging ideas and memories. Go through greeting cards, letters, favorite poems, quotes, and other meaningful writing you’ve all saved over the years.
  • Set a goal for when you want to finish. Allow yourself time to think about it. Decide when you’d like to share it with loved ones; maybe you’d like to present it as a gift on a special occasion.
  • Set aside what you’ve written or ideas you’ve collected for a while and come back to it after a week or so, then review and revise it.
  • When you’re finished, show it to someone you trust to get another opinion about how it might be received, and make sure you aren’t saying anything that could inadvertently be hurtful. has exercises to guide you in the process, or you can follow these six easy steps.

The AARP suggests 10 questions to ask yourself in creating an ethical will:

  1. Are there any values that are particularly important to you?
  2. Are there any beliefs that are particularly important to you?
  3. Is there a spiritual component to your life that is dear to you?
  4. Do you have any hopes or dreams for the generations that will follow you?
  5. Are there any particular lessons you learned during your life?
  6. Do you want to forgive anyone?
  7. Do you want anyone’s forgiveness?
  8. Do you love particular things about yourself?
  9. Is there a particular event that helped shape the person you became?
  10. Do you have any regrets?

See examples of ethical wills.

“This is a unique gift that only you can give,” said Baines – and one that the people who love you will cherish.

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