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Ethical Wills

What is an ethical will?

An ethical will is a document written to communicate values and wisdom, history, stories, and love from one generation to another. It preserves who you are and what matters most to you. It’s a way for you to be remembered and to make a real difference. This writing is spiritual in nature.

How is an ethical will communicated?

Traditionally ethical wills were communicated from father to son in written form, most often in a letter format. Still today most are written documents varying in length from a one page letter to a series of letters or a single lengthier document. They are traditionally written by hand. (Is there anything more personal or unique than one’s own handwriting?) Some are written and preserved on computer; others are recorded as audio or video to capture voice and visage.

Is an “ethical will” really a will?

Ethical wills communicate and preserve your values. They differ from your will of “valuables,” a legal declaration assigning the inheritors your property and material “stuff”. Ethical wills are not legal documents. I call them the non-legal complementary cousins of the legal will ("last will and testament") and the living will (your advance health care directive).

What is the relationship among the ethical will, the last will and testament, and the living will?

The non-legal ethical will is the logical foundation for the other two wills:

  • Once you have clarified your values, needs, and desires in relation to aging, dying and death, you can choose and define how you want to be cared for at the end of life care, and what a dignified end of life means to you. A legacy letter to accompany the legal living will has the practical benefit of being a way to engage family in discussion about these desires before the time comes to put them into use.
  • Articulating your values becomes a basic tool for making decisions about how to apportion your finances for your inheritors and for your philanthropic legacy. A legacy letter to accompany your legal will is an opportunity to express how and why you made your choices. Starting with a legacy letter makes talking about money, our last taboo, easier for you and your potential survivors and inheritors.

Why should I write an ethical will?

  • I believe it both a privilege and a responsibility to record, communicate, and preserve your family and community histories, document the legacies you received, and the experiences you’ve lived that make you who you are. Preserving your wisdom and your love establishes a link in the chain of generations, passes on a legacy for those of tomorrow's world.
  • In my experience, I have seen deep human needs addressed by writing legacy documents. These needs include: to belong, to be known, to be remembered, to make a difference, to bless and be blessed, and to celebrate life.
  • Andrew Weil, MD writes in his book, Healthy Aging, that the ethical will is pertinent to those of us “concerned with making sense of our lives and the fact of our aging.” His reasons for writing an ethical will include:
    • It’s a way to leave something behind, to be remembered.
    • It’s a way to document your history and stories for others to learn from in the future
    • It can help you understand your own values and to share your ideals with future generations
    • It can help you learn more about yourself
    • It can help you accept mortality and create a way to ‘live on’ after you are gone
    • It can provide an immediate sense of worthiness, completion, and accomplishment

What does the term “spiritual-ethical will” connote?

As I contemporized the ancient patriarchal practice to make it accessible to moderns and especially women (who often fear writing or believe they have nothing noteworthy to write), I added the word ‘spiritual’ to what is surely a spiritual practice as well as ethical, hoping to make the idea less threatening, more engaging, interesting. The core of legacy work as I practice it with others is to transform the often harsh instructions left by fathers to their sons, to passing blessings from one generation to the next. I believe this corresponds to the deep and often unmet need in all of us to be blessed by our parents.

What are appropriate topics to be included in my spiritual-ethical will?

  • Tell your story
    • personal stories as part of the larger, universal human story
    • family, tribal, and ethnic stories, special sayings/traditions/rituals
    • historical events that have shaped and impacted you, connecting past & future
  • Transmit your values: (values...instructions...blessings)
  • Pass on life-lessons / formative events / life transitions / wisdom / understanding of your aging
  • Discover and articulate your spiritual journey, your relationship with the Divine
  • Express gratitude for blessings of your life: abundance / personal gifts / relationships
  • Request forgiveness, make amends
  • Explain / tell stories about "precious possessions" being passed down: to whom & why
  • Explain / tell stories about your life passions/interests/achievements/goals/purpose
  • Explain how and why you chose recipients for your charitable gifts & financial inheritance
  • Messages / letters to family members commemorating events, holidays, marking life transitions
  • Request burial and mourning wishes - how you want to be cared for and remembered

This seems overwhelming—how can I get started?

It helps to use the letter format...start with Dear (name the loved one(s) you are writing to). I suggest choosing a topic, setting the timer, and writing for 15 minutes (you’ll be surprised how limiting the time makes it less overwhelming in your busy schedule and how much can be written in that length of time.) You can always return to what you’re writing for an additional 15 minutes on another day to add, subtract and edit. Consider these editing tips before you begin rewriting or second guessing yourself:

  • Have your words adequately conveyed the message you mean to send; are the essentials clear?
  • What is the tone of your writing? (Buddhist tenet “Do no harm.”) Save your anger and resentments for your journal!
  • Have you used words that don’t seem quite right or words that don’t sound like you?
  • Have you really written a blessing or is it an instruction beginning with the word ‘may’?
  • Imagine yourself as the recipient of the legacy letter. Read it aloud to yourself, asking yourself how you would respond to receiving this gift letter from a loved one.

When should I share my spiritual-ethical will with my loved ones?

As each of us is unique, so will be each legacy letter you write. It may be written with a special purpose in mind, or to mark a particular occasion or transition in your life or the life of a dear one. You can share it at a special moment in the recipient’s life. You can preserve it to be given to your loved ones at the end of your life. There are no rules except for you to search your own heart to know the appropriate moment for you to share it.

May all your legacies be blessings,