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Ethical Wills

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Maintaining a current legal will is important for designating the distribution of one's financial resources and physical possessions after death. It is also essential to have a living will (also known as an advance care health directive). Not to be confused with either of these is the ethical will (also known as an ethical legacy or a legacy letter), which is being created by many people as a complement to the other two.

An ethical will is not a legal document, but more a document of the heart. An ethical will provides an opportunity for one to articulate the values, beliefs, hopes, and dreams that are most important, what an individual believes s/he leaves of herself to family, friends, and perhaps community after death. While this practice is not new, and has been practiced for some time within the Jewish tradition, it is being used more frequently as more people are engaging in conversations about death and exploring their own death more consciously.

Why write an ethical will?

  • HandingFlowers.jpgIt will help you to define and articulate for yourself your core beliefs and values and what has been and is most important for you in living your life.
  • It provides a direct connection between you and future generations, something that lives on after you are gone.
  • It is an extraordinary gift from you to your children and/or others outlining what parts of yourself you are leaving to them, what they will carry forward from you.
  • It will help to shine a light on how you might choose to live the rest of your life, whether you have remaining just a short time or many years.    

What should an ethical will contain?

There is no one way nor a right way to write an ethical will. Anything is possible. Typically, ethical wills might contain one or more of the following:

  • Your values and beliefs about living your life
  • Stories about your life
  • Lessons you have learned along the way
  • Prayers, blessings, hopes and dreams for the recipients of your ethical will
  • Expressions of appreciation, love, gratitude, forgiveness, requests for forgiveness, farewells
  • Anything that you want to share

When should you write your ethical will?

There is no one right time. Many people don't think about doing this until they are older or have had a serious look at death. Others write their ethical will at a younger age, when there is still plenty of time to take advantage of the clarity that results to help guide the rest of their life. One  suggestion, however, is not to wait too long, when you may be too close to death to be able to focus on this or to gain some of the benefits of writing it.

With whom should you share your ethical will and when should you share it?

Typically, ethical wills are written for one's children and/or other members of the next generation. They may also be written for other family members, friends, and/or other community members. Many people choose to share their ethical will when they are still living and healthy. Such sharing can provide a great opening to a conversation about death and/or an opening to a deeper emotional connection. And others choose to leave it as a gift to be opened upon their death. Again, there is no right way.

Additional Resources on Ethical Wills:

Life Legacies

Celebrations of Life

Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, by Barry K. Gaines, M.D.

"The Ethical Will, an Ancient Concept, is Revamped for the Tech Age," Jo Kline Cebuhar, NY Times, 10/31/14