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​​​September 2017: What is an Ethical Will?

Beatrice was nearly 100 years old when she put her own words of wisdom into writing. “Please remember that without family you have neither security nor the spiritual values that give life meaning,” she advised her descendants. “Life, no matter what the struggles, the perplexities, always has a value if you value who you are as a human being.”

Beatrice’s letter was not a last will and testament or a legal document of any kind. It was her ethical will – a heartfelt, living statement of her hopes, values, and blessings for the next generation. It’s a way to share what you value most in life and want to impart to your loved ones. And, it’s something everyone should consider having at any age.

Many cultures have long embraced the idea of documenting one’s life legacy and there are examples of ethical wills dating back to Biblical times. It’s long been common for soldiers to write “If you’re reading this…” letters to loved ones on the eve of deployment. President Barack Obama famously penned a legacy letter to his daughters on the night before his first inauguration, encouraging them to build a better world where every child has a chance to learn and grow.

Having an ethical will:
Helps identify, articulate, and record our values and ensure the continuation of those values in the future.
Preserves family histories and stories from the past.
Is a meaningful way to express love, forgiveness, regrets, or apologies.
Can bring a sense of comfort at any stage of life.

An ethical will can also be a source of emotional or spiritual healing. Some say it’s a form of catharsis, a sense of completion that helps them come to terms with their mortality. But putting one’s values and dreams on paper doesn’t have to be an end-of-life gesture. It can express future aspirations and desires, too.

When 38-year-old Sara was pregnant, she wrote a letter to her unborn baby containing a brief family history and some advice. “Cultivate a diversity of friends and remember to judge a person as an individual, not by their ethnic, religious or racial group,” she told her future child. “Be aware of the evils of the world, but do not be consumed by them.”

Sometimes, an ethical will can express a more tangible wish. In the weeks before his death, a 70-year-old man wrote, “Should it ever be necessary, see that your mother remains comfortable financially and otherwise.”

How to prepare an ethical will
You don’t need an expert or a template to create an ethical will. It doesn’t have to be done all at once, either. Try keeping a journal (write it yourself, use a recording device, or dictate it to someone you trust) over time. Document your thoughts, dreams, or personal journey. Imagine how the wisdom of your experiences will be of value to the next generation. Express gratitude for those you cherish. Share lessons learned. Tell your life story. Reveal a secret, if you like. Anything goes: your ethical will is, by definition, a legacy that only you can leave behind.

Then, review your collection of vignettes. Select, combine, and revise them as you wish. You’ll have an enduring gift for your loved ones, one they’ll treasure and perhaps pass along to their descendants.

If you’re having trouble getting started on writing out your ethical will, you can find these and other examples of here.