Consider an “Ethical Will”

As part of my estate planning process with clients, especially after the holidays and spending time with family and other loved ones, I discuss considering talking to your loved ones about topics that are important to you, and consider putting these thoughts in writing; or any medium you feel comfortable with such as a recording or video.  It could be delivered during life; but usually it is “opened and read” after the person’s passing and should reflect your personality and philosophy.  An Ethical Will is a centuries-old tradition based on the Jewish tradition of passing a person’s hopes, dreams, wisdom, wishes, guidance, regrets, family history & stories, and general life lessons on to the next generation.  This document is not a true legal document but merely passing on your guidance and thoughts and would supplement your legal documents such as your Last Will and Testament.   Most instances, this Ethical Will is read only by the loved ones; sometimes it is requested to be read at a person’s funeral.  An Ethical Will can be as important and even more meaningful as the disposition of material possessions after you pass.

An Ethical Will can be difficult.  You must look inward at yourself and the essential truths about your life; including failures.  Some people will chastise; others to ask or give forgiveness.  It is meant to be instructional, informative, and uplifting, and other times, humorous. Others will explain why they treated heirs differently during their lives and in their estate planning documents. 

A few bullet points to consider:

  • Values, beliefs, and life lessons
  • Stories of family, including hardships and lessons learned
  • Religious beliefs and what values are important to pass on
  • Guidance on general life such as marriage, finances, and investments
  • Favorite things you enjoyed such as hobbies, sports, movies, & food
  • What you learned not only from life but from your parents and elders
  • Favorite job or activity
  • How handled stress and the “bumps” in life such as sickness/financial
  • Proud and biggest accomplishments
  • Hopes for the future
  • Mistakes to avoid in life
  • Request to watch over love one
  • Pointers on raising children

An Ethical Will gives you a little bit of immortality.  Your actions are the best way to pass on your values and those who observed what you said and how you lived.  The Ethical Will can emphasize these points you already demonstrated in your life. To be remembered by not only random memories of others but what is important to you that can be reviewed many times after your passing to “talk from the grave”.

There are many on-line resources such as Everplan’s template.  Merely Google search “Ethical Will” and you can find many good articles or sources.  A good written book with a section on Ethical Wills is “The Rich Die Richer and You Can Too” by William D. Zabel (much of estate info is outdated but good discussion on Ethical Wills.)