What Is an Ethical Will?
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What Is an Ethical Will?

Scenes like this have taken place across the country since March, and many patients and loved ones have had strained conversations over phone or video calls, struggling to find the right words and hoping that their words can be heard. However, it’s impossible to share all of the family’s thoughts during this most trying of times, says a recent article “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love” from The Wall Street Journal.

The increasing interest in estate planning during the pandemic has seen many Americans waking up to the realization they must get their estate plans in order. They focus on preparing wills, health care proxies and powers of attorney, which are important. However, there is another document that needs to be completed. It’s called an “ethical will.”

The ethical will is a statement used to transmit an individual’s basic values, history and legacy they would like to leave behind. It’s usually directed to children and grandchildren, but it can have a larger audience as well, and be shared with the friends who have become like family over a lifetime, or to communities, like houses of worship or civic groups.

The act of writing an ethical will reveals things the writer may not have even been aware of or leads to connections being made that had never been imagined. It is a chance to preserve parts of the person’s history, as well as the history of their ancestors. It is a wonderful gift to share your deepest wishes with those who are so important to you. An ethical will can bond people and generations, whether the letter is shared while you are living or after you have passed and lead to a sense of belonging to something bigger than each individual.

One of the most famous ethical wills was written by Shalom Aleichem, the famous Yiddish writer, and was printed in The New York Times after his death in 1916. While prepared as a last will and testament, it was a wonderful story that shared his values. He suggested that family and friends meet every year on the anniversary of his death, select a joyous story from the many he had written and read it aloud and “let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all.”

Even those of us who are not skilled writers have thoughts and wishes and history to share with our loved ones. Here are some questions to consider, when preparing your ethical will:

  • Who is it directed to?
  • Were there specific people and events who influenced your life?
  • What family history or stories would you want to pass on to the next generation?
  • What ethical or religious values are important to you?

While you work on completing a new estate plan, or updating an existing plan, take a moment to consider your ethical will and what you would like to share with your loved ones. The time to complete your estate plan and your ethical will is now.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 17, 2020) “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love”

What Is an Ethical Will and Do You Need One?

When an estate planning attorney suggests that clients create ethical wills, they aren’t asking the clients to create another last will and testament. Instead, it is to create something that can explain their intentions to their loved ones. According to the article “How to create an ethical will” from Herald Net, a ethical will is also known as a legacy letter.

This can be a kind and loving gift to your family, since it allows you to express your feelings and thoughts. If you’re not accustomed to sharing your feelings, that will make it even more special to your loved ones. It’s an opportunity to say all the things you never felt comfortable saying. You may want to express your wishes, regrets and gratitude. You may also want to pass long the life lessons that have been valuable for you.

An ethical will also provides an opportunity for you to explain how you came to the decisions you did about your will and the money and possessions you are passing along. You might want to explain why a certain child is being given a piece of artwork or why another is being left assets in a trust and not an outright gift.

If you are more comfortable with making a video, you can also do that. An audio or video recording often becomes a treasured piece of family history, since it allows generations who may have never met you to see and hear you.

Start by writing down some notes about what matters to you and what you think you might want to share with the family. Take your time. Remember you aren’t writing the Great American Novel but creating a gift of love.

Once you’ve gathered your thoughts, move on to the next draft. Once it’s complete, to keep this document safe and in a secure location. If you have a waterproof and fireproof safe where you keep important papers in the home, the ethical will should also go in there. Remember that safe deposit boxes are sealed at death, so if you want your loved ones to read this, it should not go in the safe deposit box.

One last thought—some people like to share their ethical will with family and friends, while they are still living. This allows them to enjoy their reactions and have a discussion about whatever they have shared in the document. Others prefer to wait until after they have passed. It’s a very personal decision.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about how the ethical will works with your estate plan.  Make sure there’s nothing in the ethical will that contradicts your last will and testament. That could create problems for the family.

Reference: Herald Net (Nov. 6, 2029) “How to create an ethical will”