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:
- Personal Legacy Advisors has books, guides, and on-demand training.
- The Life Legacies website touts “Legacy Letters,” includes sample letters, and lets you sign up for a monthly newsletter.
- My Jewish Learning breaks the process down into four exercises. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/writing-an-ethical-will-how-to-get-started/
- Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines.
- Passing Your Heritage On : A Guide to Writing Your Ethical Wills, by Sharon Foltz.
- Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them: A Guide to Sharing Your Values from Generation to Generation, by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer, and Rabbi Harold S. Kushner.