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How Can an Ethical Will Help Me?


An ethical will is not a legal document, but a supplement to your last will and testament. It gives you a chance, even after you're gone, to explain the rationale for financial decisions you made.

An ethical will can also be called a legacy letter. It is not a legal document but a supplement to your last will and testament, a modern iteration of a tradition that goes back to the Book of Genesis where the patriarchs passed on their wisdom to their families. Think of it as a will for "...values, not valuables." Some have called it the "...missing piece of estate planning."

The relevance to financial affairs, while not legally binding as in a will, is clear. An ethical will is an opportunity to explain, to articulate the rationale for philanthropy and other financial decisions that you have made in your will. It helps to eliminate the question of "What did he/she mean and why?" that can result from the dry legalese of estate planning documents.

But an ethical will can be so much more than that. Although it is intended to be a well-meaning effort to help your heirs be "good stewards" of your worldly goods, it is also a chance to forgive, be forgiven, express love and gratitude, resolve conflicts, tell stories and provide a warehouse for your hard-won insight(s) and wisdom. Your 10,000-foot view of life.

The concept may seem new or vague, so let's expand on the kinds of things that other people are currently including in their ethical wills. And then we can talk about how to get started on making one ourselves if the idea appeals and makes sense.

Key phrases that I have heard used are: “link to the family's past,” “clarification of values,” “focus on life's purpose” and “communication of things so far left unsaid.” The impetus for these kinds of expressions includes the need to be known, to be remembered, to make a difference, to bless and be blessed. Freud pointed out that the central fact of every human's life is the certain knowledge of our own death and our struggle to manage that promise. An ethical will can help to make sense of it all.

Great care has to be given in both the construction of such a document and in its reading. It is after all not easy for any of the parties involved to confront some these feelings. So staying positive in both the writing and the reading is important. Keep in mind the option of sharing its contents during your lifetime. Sharing, with the back and forth that will result, can be revelatory and also can emphasize that reading an ethical will is not an event but a continuing work in progress during the course of your life. It truly is more process than event.

To get started, or learn more, consult your estate attorney or view the myriad of sites available on the net. But here are a few simple guidelines if you don't want to do all that.

First and foremost, start today. Just do it. Relax and be yourself. This is to be a highly personal, informal document. There are no rules. You can write it, dictate it or video it. Whatever works for you.

Then ask yourself some questions. Do you want to tell a story, offer your likes and dislikes, describe how you have dealt with life's problems, or list what has been most important to you? What was your upbringing like? Would you have had some aspects of it be different? What is your philosophy? You get the idea. Remember that the process can both be edifying and fun as well as useful to all concerned.

One more thing: make sure you leave it in an obvious place or where it can be found with your other estate documents. Better yet, tell those involved where that place is.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice