What is an Ethical Will?
Most people are familiar with the concept of a “last will and testament”. It is a legal document that disposes of our accumulated assets, and effects other important decisions at the time of our death.
But…have you ever considered writing an ethical will?
As a personal historian, I feel that an Ethical Will is just as important as a legal will. An ethical will is a way to share your values with your family in the same way that a legal will shares your physical assets.
Ethical wills are not new. The Hebrew Bible first described ethical wills, which were transmitted orally. (Genesis Ch. 49) They are also mentioned in the Christian Bible(John Ch. 15-18), and are found in the history of many other cultures. Today, they are most often written and shared with family members while the writer is still alive. They are not, however, legal documents, nor are they legally binding. So, what are they?
Ethical wills may be one of the most cherished and meaningful gifts you can leave to your family. It reflects the writer’s inner heart. Think of it as a love letter to your family. Every ethical will is as unique as the person writing it. Here’s a partial list of common themes seen in more modern ethical wills:
Personal values and beliefs
Hopes and blessings for future generations
Love for your family and others
Forgiving others and asking for forgiveness
Why Write an Ethical Will
There are probably as many reasons for writing an ethical will, as there are ethical wills. Everyone writes one for a different reason. Some people want to explain themselves, some want to defend their actions, and others want to teach life lessons.
Here are some of the more common reasons for writing an ethical will:
We all want to be remembered, and this helps shape the way we are remembered.
If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will and they will be lost forever
It helps you identify what you value most and what you stand for
By stating what we value, we can take steps to pass those values on to future generations
Writing an ethical will teaches you a lot about yourself.
It makes us realize our own mortality when we create something that will live on after we are gone
It helps to provide a sense of completion in our lives.
When Might You Write an Ethical Will?
There is no specific time when one should write an ethical will, but there are stages in life when writing one makes more sense.Engaged Couples:
An ethical will can help couples understand each other’s values, and can contribute to building a foundation of common values for the marriage. Many churches are requiring attendance at pre-marriage classes, where values and belief systems are examined and discussed.Expectant and new parents:
Children don’t come with a “user’s manual.” (Wouldn’t life be easier if they did?) An ethical will can provide a basis of common values upon which to approach child rearing. In addition, it can help in conflict resolution by understanding the other’s value base.Divorcing Couples:
An ethical will may provide some security and reassurance for the children involved, by providing tangible evidence of what’s important to their parents.Growing families:
For growing families, an ethical will can be used to teach values to children. By writing these values on a document, it has the potential to improve communication with our children.Empty-Nesters
Very often, couples are so busy raising children, they neglect their relationship. When faced with an “empty nest”, they suddenly realize that they don’t know this person they are sharing a life with. An ethical will provides the opportunity to launch adult children and enter into a new relationship phase with a written statement of who they are.Middle age and beyond:
This is one life stage that writing an ethical will is most fitting. We have lived, and hopefully learned from our experiences. It is an opportunity to gather our life experiences, convert them into wisdom, and allow for the passing on of this wisdom to future generationsEnd of Life:
Writing an ethical will at the end of life, if time and energy permit, adds dimension to our lives by providing a link to future generations when you are no longer here.
How To Write an Ethical Will
Writing an ethical will may seem to be a daunting task. It’s easier if you think of it as a love letter to your family.
Here are three basic approaches for creating your ethical will.
Using an outline structure and a list of items to choose from. This is by far the easiest way to get started and it can build your confidence quickly. You can create a rough draft to work from in less than an hour. See the list of resources.
Using guided writing exercises to help you create content for your ethical will.
Here are some ideas to help you get started.
Over time, write down ideas –a few words or a sentence or two about things like:
What I believe and think
How I acted on my values
Things I learned from grandparents / parents / siblings / spouse / children
Something that experience taught me
Something I am thankful for
What are my hopes for my loved ones in the future
What are some of the important events in your life
If you only had a limited time to live, what would you regret not having done?
Save items that reflect your feelings, e.g., quotes, cartoons, etc
After a few weeks or months, review what you’ve collected
Group related items together – you will begin to see patterns
Revise the related categories into paragraphs
Arrange the paragraphs in an order that makes sense to you
Add an introduction and conclusion
Put this aside for a few weeks and then review and revise
Start with a blank sheet of paper. This is an open-ended approach. It is also an excellent way to write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Periodically review what you’ve written. Themes will appear and you can use them to create a comfortable structure for your ethical will.
Tuesdays With Morrie
Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper
The Ethical Will Writing Guide Workbook and The Ethical Will Resource Kit
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Kitchen Table Wisdom
So That Your Values Live On
From Age-ing to Sage-ing
www.ethicalwill.comThe only web site devoted exclusively to the topic of ethical wills. More than twenty modern ethical wills are posted on this site.Software Resources
Putting Your Values on Paper™:The Ethical Will Writing Guide, by Barry K. Baines, MD and Wm. Bradley Rouse. Computer software to help you complete a draft copy of an ethical will. Schacter-Shalomi, Zalman and Miller, Ronald, Warner Books, 1997Internet Resources Riemer, Jack and Stampfer, Nathaniel, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991 Remen, Rachel Naomi M.D., Riverhead Books, 1996. Covey, Stephen, Simon and Schuster, 1989. Baines, Barry K., M.D, Final Gifts Callanan, Maggie and Kelley, Patricia, Bantam Books, 1997 Baines, Barry K., M.D., , Perseus Publishing, 2001. Albom, Mitch Doubleday, 1997