Two years ago I was at a National Association of Personal Financial Advisors conference in Phoenix when I heard about an ethical will. Elana Zaiman, author of The Forever Letter, shared her experience growing up the daughter of a rabbi in Rhode Island. Her book is a modern take on what an ethical will is.
What is an Ethical Will?
According to Everplans.com, an Ethical Will is a personal document that you can create to communicate your values, experiences, and life lessons to your family. It’s actually a medieval practice where fathers gave directions to their children.
Modern Ethical Wills
Now, ethical wills are written by men and women of all ages, religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. An example of a modern ethical will is former President Barack Obama’s Legacy Letters to his daughters. A partial excerpt writes:
“When I was a young man, I thought life was allÂ about meâ€”about how Iâ€™d make my way in theÂ world, become successful, and get the things I want.Â But then the two of you came into my world with allÂ your curiosity and mischief and those smiles thatÂ never fail to fill my heart and light up my day. AndÂ suddenly, all my big plans for myself didnâ€™t seem soÂ important anymore.”Â Source. ~Barak Obama
Here is a touching example by George H.W. Bush written to his kids prior to his passing on the topic of aging:
You don’t have to be famous to write a meaningful letter to those you love. And you don’t have to write your letter to someone who is an heir. You can write an ethical will to your spouse, your brother or sister, or even your best friend. The important part is communicating your story to those you love.
Ethical Will Worksheet
How do you write an ethical will? If you search the internet, you’ll see many examples. But Everyplans.com has a pretty neat worksheet. You can start by indicating that you are writing your ethical will because…. I want to share my ethical will with….
Then you can go on to include answers to questions like:
- What’s your favorite place in the world?
- Who’s your favorite author and why?
- What did you learn from your mother? Father? Grandparents?
- What do you respect most about your brother or sister?
- Your favorite holiday tradition was?
- The best job I ever had was?
- I became a ___ because?
- The toughest decision I ever made was?
- I would like to ask forgiveness from ___ for___?
- If my life were summed up in a statement it would be?
- These causes were the most important to me?
- My wish for my children/grandchildren are?
Ethical wills are not like traditional wills. They have very little to do with stuff, and a lot to do with communicating. They can communicate what you want for your kids and grandkids. But they can also communicate important messages to family and friends. Maybe, if you start writing your ethical will, they’ll communicate an important message to you. That’s what an ethical will is.