For many, writing a will calls for deep reflection—and probably creates some trepidation, too. How can an official legal document begin to sum up the sacrifices and triumphs of one’s life? A conventional will provides an official catalog of your assets. But your life shouldn’t be reduced to a simple list of material acquisitions.
How do you express to your heirs the value system that inspired you? How do you speak to their future from the present day in an impactful way? Do they know how you were tested during your lifetime? Who were the people and institutions that motivated you, helped you rise up from hardships, and kept you on a path to building an estate that now has the power to change your family’s future?
Reading Between the Lines
For many, an Ethical Will is the ideal way to convey how you came to develop your standard estate plan and the value system that informed your life and decisions. An Ethical Will can also serve as a touchstone for your heirs, a set of guiding principles to adhere to as your estate becomes part of their lives. Unlike a traditional will that provides instructions for the legal transfer and handling of assets, an Ethical Will—also referred to as a “Legacy Letter”—can help reinforce your legacy beyond just wealth and assets.
Though not legally binding, an Ethical Will is often shared with heirs and family members as part of the estate administration process. That said, it can also be shared with loved ones at any time, even before any transfer of assets might take place.
Some of the common objectives of an Ethical Will include:
- conveying to heirs the story of one’s life;
- articulating your core family values;
- sharing priceless family history; and
- expressing to heirs your hopes and dreams for their future.
Putting Pen to Paper
Ethical Wills can take many forms. Unlike standard wills, there is no set template to follow. Some choose a classic letter format that reads as both an autobiography and a kind of statement of purpose. Others present their Ethical Will in a video or audio recording. Since there are no restrictions, choose a style that allows you to speak in your own voice with candor—or even humor—while conveying the wisdom that comes from a life of experience.
Here are some guidelines on how to organize your thoughts in preparing an Ethical Will (Display).
Reflect on the past:
Think about the family stories that best convey your goals and values. Talk about the events from your past that your family might not be aware of. Which lessons, passions, and obstacles formed the trajectory of your life? Do you have regrets that your heirs can learn from? Think about the lives of your heirs so far—how are you alike and how are you different?
Consider the present:
What are your personal values and beliefs today and how have they changed over time? Consider how your heirs have inspired you! How can you express your love and gratitude? What are the principles that have helped to guide you to this point in your life? Perhaps your heirs would like to hear how their present-day challenges are similar to yours at the same age.
Contemplate the future:
What are your hopes and dreams for your heirs? What advice do you want to pass on? Consider how your heirs will read your will. Would you like to explain or illuminate your thought process, show your appreciation for their talents, or express admiration for their gifts?
Reaching Across Time
An Ethical Will is a gift to both your heirs and your future descendants, too. It isn’t meant to just memorialize your life events. It’s also an ideal platform to remind heirs that family connections provide both comfort and wisdom. The Ethical Will gives you the opportunity to speak to future generations, who may come to see a bit of you in themselves. Think of relatives from your family’s past that you wish could have written you such a letter—and the inspiration it may have provided.
The Missing Piece in Your Estate Plan
An Ethical Will can complement other estate planning documents and provide a way to communicate with heirs about your wishes and plans. Naturally, life transitions force us to evaluate the arc of our lives in deep and profound ways. A new marriage, new children and grandchildren, illness, and divorce can all be catalysts that inspire the creation of an Ethical Will. But there’s no need to wait for such a transition to get started on this meaningful and impactful project. Think of an Ethical Will as a family gift for generations to come, providing comfort as they navigate a world without you. Perhaps you’ll inspire a new family tradition of Ethical Wills—a tradition that you embark on today.