Ethical wills: Creating a loving legacy

Typical estate planning involves lawyers, financial planners and accountants. Their job is to help you determine how your financial assets are bequeathed to future generations and often use language such as wealth management to describe their services. However, many of the valuable items to be passed on cannot be measured in financial terms. Wealth also includes powerful intangibles such as values, spiritual beliefs, family stories, hopes for future generations and blessings. These are often included in an ethical will.

The origin of ethical wills is found in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the scriptures typically reflect blessings, moral directives and burial instructions. In later centuries, ethical wills grew to include the writer’s values and beliefs as well as personal historical information. People owned little property but they were free to speak their minds with respect to their “moral” assets. It is noteworthy that while women were not allowed to write a legal will until recent times, many ethical wills were authored by women, usually in the form of letters and books written as gifts for their children.

Ethical wills have been written by those as young as 10 years old – when one child facing death told his parents he wanted to help save the environment. His family honoured his wishes and set up an environmental initiative that still exists today. Ethical wills can be written at any life changing experience such as marriage, the birth of a child or divorce. For those in the later years of life, an ethical will can transform values and beliefs into a lasting legacy that can be treasured for generations.

Some topics to consider including in an ethical will:

•What you did to act on your values
•Things you learned from grandparents, parents, children, spouse
• What you are grateful for
• Your hopes for the future
• Important events in your life
• Things you regret doing or not doing
• Happiest times
• Lessons learned
• Importance of your religion

The following abridged ethical will was written by a man in his early seventies who had been diagnosed with cancer six months earlier.

The following are things I have learned throughout life. Never give up. Through having cancer, I have learned that one cannot always believe the doctor who gave me three weeks to live. Keep fighting it, be stubborn and be open to other people.

Faith in God is important. Never be afraid to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me”. Learn to be humble. If you want something for God’s sake, ask for it. Be the best person you can be. Be generous with love and have acceptance of other’s quirkiness.

For my seven kids, each one of you is different. You wouldn’t know that you were related except for your looks. But you all have a little bit of me hanging around you, some good and some not so good.

I am thankful to all those who have been good to me. I’ve learned to live a good life. I hope a good life for all.*

Ethical wills were first transmitted orally and would be shared when the death of the author was expected. Now that ethical wills are written documents, they are often made public while the author is alive and well, and can create special opportunities for ongoing dialogue and discussion. What a beautiful gift for your loved ones!

The most important ingredient in preparing an ethical will is to write from the heart. You don’t have to be a professional writer, and there are no limits on what messages you can pass on to family members. The only exception is to avoid writing with a grudge and with the intent to hurt or shame someone.

The legal will specifies the beneficiaries and the financial, property and material possessions to be distributed. An ethical will can provide an opportunity to help others understand your rationale for the distribution of these assets and potentially avoid some of the hurt that can result from seemingly “unfair” decisions. An explanation can be given why money has been divided in certain ways or why one adult child has been chosen over another to be head of the family business. An ethical will can be the connective thread for all your estate planning decisions. Isn’t this leaving your family with a loving legacy?

*Abridged from Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, Dr. Barry Baines, Perseus Books, 2002

Linda Somers M.Ed is a Legacy Coach and coaches people on how to write ethical wills. Contact her at [email protected]