Close this search box.

Leave a Richer Legacy With Ethical Wills

Print Article

For some of us, a result of the current pandemic has been a stark realization: So much in life means more than money. Money, however, is what estate plans are all about — expressing how you want your assets divided when you die. An estate plan includes very little, if anything, about the rest of life — hopes, dreams, values, and passions. A typical estate plan can’t really express “you.” An “ethical will,” however, does just that.

An ethical will is not what most people think of as a “will” at all. It has no legal significance, can’t pass any property to anyone, or be legally binding. It’s basically a special kind of letter, also called a “legacy letter” or “forever letter,” that aims to pass on personal values. Common themes include lessons learned, gratitude, guidance, and hopes for the future.

In ancient Jewish tradition, fathers wrote these letters for sons for reading after the patriarch’s death. Now people write them for anyone they care about and don’t wait for someone to die to share. Examples can be found going back centuries. For instance, according to Wikipedia, Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms, around the year 1050, wrote in his ethical will: “Think not of evil, for evil thinking leads to evil doing . . . Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul . . . Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.”

Ethical Wills Bring Comfort

As estate planning attorneys, we talk to lots of people after a loved one dies, and letters like these soothe grief and become cherished items. Writing one can be good for you, too. Proponents say that crafting such a letter can help you focus and articulate values, which helps you live more intentionally from that point on.

Experts advise to focus on love and encouragement. Avoid statements that the reader might find painful such as criticism or judgment. Some difficult topics can be tackled, though, such as regrets, apologies, and family secrets. Sharing, even after death, can help bring closure and peace. If you want to write about a bad experience, try to use it as an example of a lesson learned, one that made you stronger and more resilient.

Everyone Needs an Editor

Consider showing your letter to someone you trust to avoid misstatements or omissions that could unintentionally be hurtful. (If you have three kids, you probably want to give them equal treatment.)

Opt for paper. You may think that Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram) captures every value you ever had. Those platforms, however, will inevitably make way for something newer and flashier. Paper allows your legacy to be passed around, and saved in both physical and digital formats for generations. In addition, there’s something to be said for you being the one to choose the most important events and values from your timeline.

Beyond general values, consider:

  • Wishes for spouse or partner, children, and grandchildren.
  • An experience or person who helped give your life meaning.
  • Advice for overcoming hardship or poor choices
  • Tips for making difficult decisions
  • Guidance for finding comfort during difficult times
  • Inspiration from your profession, travel, entertainers, foods, and pastimes.
  • Lessons from parents, grandparents, children.
  • Meaningful family and religious traditions.
  • Fond memories of family members.
  • Things that make you proud
  • Moments that brought you joy, inspiration, or gratitude
  • Forgiveness, both offering it and asking for it
  • Thoughts on religion and faith
  • Causes you believe in
  • What success means to you

If You Need a Roadmap

Because ethical wills have been a rich tradition for so long, there is no shortage of help out there, if you need it.

In Tucson, Jewish Family and Community Services of Southern Arizona promotes ethical wills with commentary on video from Rabbi Stephanie Aaron and a workbook you can download.

Or google “ethical wills,” and you will find plenty of guidance. Here are just a few additional online resources:

Among books:

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.