Dan Hall & Associates Solid Plans for Peace of Mind

Ethical Wills

Meaning and Origins

An ethical will is essentially a document that passes on thoughts, feelings, and values to family and friends.  It can be in any form: letter, journal, video tape, recording, manuscript.  Unlike a legal will, an ethical will has no legal purpose, and is not a legally binding document, although legal wills and ethical wills often accompany each other.  The simplest analogy is this: where a legal will bequeaths valuables, an ethical will bequeaths values.

The concept of an ethical will dates back thousands of years, and can be seen across many different cultures.  It has historically been found in oral traditions; community or family elders or leaders offered prayers, blessings and advice to family members and followers.  Over time, the contents have evolved to include the beliefs and values of the writer, or information of a personal or historical nature.

When to Write One

It is often easiest to write an ethical will over time rather than all in one sitting.  It may be something you want to start and then come back to periodically, as you have time or as you come up with new ideas.  It also doesn’t have to be something read only after the death of the author; many people choose to write and share an ethical will at a major turning point in their life: upon marriage, the birth of children, etc., or when an event or situation gives them cause for reflection. 

What to Include

An ethical will can include anything you want!  However, if you find simply sitting and staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen intimidating (as many of us do), here are some ideas to consider.

You may find it easiest to organize your thoughts around a simple time frame: the past, present, and future, for example.  In the “past” section you could include meaningful personal or family stories, lessons learned from personal or familial experience, or historical or ancestral information that you want to pass on to future generations.  The “present” section might include your own personal values and beliefs, the values and beliefs of your community or religious faith, or expressions of love and gratitude to family members and friends.  The “future” section may include blessings, your hopes and dreams for present and future generations, advice or guidance, requests, or funeral plans.  Alternatively, you might decide to organize your ideas around several themes: values and beliefs, lessons and reflections about life, hopes for the future, etc. 

Getting Started

There are many different approaches to writing an ethical will.  The fastest and easiest, of course, is to start with an outline and a list of things to choose from, and go from there!  Writing exercises help too.  Think about what you wish your parents or grandparents had told you, and write about it.  Write about the activities you have devoted time to, and why.  Write about your favorite sayings or stories and include examples of how they guided you. 

If all this still feels overwhelming, try choosing a topic or exercise, setting a timer for fifteen minutes, and writing down whatever comes to you.  When the timer goes off, put away what you’ve written and come back to it later.  The task may feel less intimidating if you break it down into small bits.  Lastly, keeping a journal may help you to collect ideas for your ethical will by helping you to discover or remember thoughts, feelings, or events that you think are important, or by helping you to gain perspective about a situation, relationship, or experience.

Remember, these are simply ideas and suggestions.  There are no hard and fast rules.  However, try to avoid words that are chastising, negative, or controlling, or that focus on the actions of the reader, rather than on the feelings and experiences of the writer.  Write about what you think is important, or what you want others to know about yourself or your beliefs. 

A few additional thoughts.  First, this isn’t something your attorney can write for you.  This is both good news and bad news.  The good news is that you don’t have to pay for it!  The bad news is that you actually have to sit down and write it.  Hopefully, however, the above suggestions will make that part easier. 

Second, when you finish writing your ethical will, attach a copy to your original legal will, and give a copy to your attorney to be kept with your other estate planning documents.  It is also a good idea to tell your friends or family members that the ethical will exists, and where they can find it, so they know to look for it after you have passed away.  

Reasons to Write an Ethical Will

An ethical will can be used to articulate what you stand for, and to tell stories that illustrate your personal values, so they can be passed on to future generations.  It can fill in knowledge gaps for Will recipients by providing historical or ancestral information that links different generations.  It can be used to convey feelings, thoughts and truths that may be hard to say face-to-face, or it can be used to express regrets and apologies.  Most importantly, it will give family and friends something to look to for memories, guidance, and inspiration.

By Genevieve Hoffman 7/9/10

« Back to White Papers