In your estate plan, you leave behind financial wealth and possessions, but the most valuable items you can pass on are those that cannot be measured. That’s why you should consider writing an ethical Will.
What is an ethical Will?
An ethical Will is a great way to reinforce, to those people dearest to you, your values, insights and beliefs. It is a profoundly meaningful piece of writing that captures a part of you, perhaps your very essence, that won’t be found in any formal estate plan.
An ethical Will is not a legal document; you don’t need an elder law attorney to help you draft one. In fact it’s about as official as an envelope you might use to scribble your grocery list. It’s simply your opportunity to leave a spiritual legacy to your family.
You could think of it as a love letter to those you hold close.
Why it’s a good idea
- Impart wisdom: You have lived a long time and learned a lot, so why not bestow your wisdom on those you leave behind? It is a great way to pass along your ideals and guiding principles, to reinforce to those dearest to you what’s in your heart and what you would like for them to remember most about you. Consider it the most important message you’ll ever write. Imagine that your words can guide, encourage and inspire your loved ones. That it can heal and fill the empty places in their hearts, and the gaps in their histories.
- Say the unsaid: It can clarify issues left unsaid in a basic Will and testament – such as why your estate is divided in a certain way. It can be the thread that ties the loose ends together.
- Foster inter-generational connections: The contents of an ethical Will can affect future generations for years to come. As your loved one reads about your values and priorities, they’ll better understand the family culture they are a part of.
- A healthy exercise: Like journal-keeping, it’s an act of self-discovery, requiring deep reflection. It clarifies your identity and focuses your life purpose. Perhaps you’ll find that one of the best reasons to craft an ethical Will is for your own sake!
When should you write one?
There is no specific time to write an ethical Will but probably the most fitting time is at middle age and beyond, when you can gather your life experiences and convert them into wisdom to pass along. But anyone can write one at any time. Keep in mind that it should be a work in progress, with changes made along the way.
How to get started
There’s no right and wrong way to express what only you can express. It can be a couple pages or it can be a few sentences. It can be typed or handwritten. If you want to get fancy, it can be recorded in video or audio format. Download this sample to get you started.
Often, the biggest challenge in writing an ethical Will could be getting started. Staring at a white piece of paper can be intimidating, so here are some questions that may help you start the process.
- What are the values you wish to pass on?
- What family stories would you like to share?
- Do you want to ask for forgiveness or forgive others?
- What are the lessons that you’ve learned in life?
- What are your spiritual beliefs?
- What hopes and dreams do you have for your loved ones?
- What advice would you offer others about living their lives?
- Do you have regrets?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
- Is there anything in your life you would have done differently?
Address your ethical Will broadly to “family and friends” or mention specific people – the choice is yours. Be sure to write it in your own voice and speak from the heart. You don’t want it to sound like a straightforward, cold legal document (since it isn’t one!). Make it a sincere, descriptive, uniquely personal message to your loved ones.
Keep your ethical Will with your other estate planning documents rather than buried in a drawer so that you know it will be read and cherished by your loved ones at the appropriate time.
Your ethical Will may be one of the most cherished and meaningful gifts you can leave to your family. And it won’t cost you a dime.