Ethical Wills

An "ethical will" is not a legal document, but a personal statement

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Unlike the will you use to leave property to loved ones, an “ethical will” is not a legal document. Rather, it’s a personal letter or statement you create to transmit values, love, and life lessons to your family and community.

At least as old as the Bible, ethical wills -- sometimes called “legacy letters” -- can serve many purposes, including:

  • learning about yourself by clarifying your most important values, beliefs, and life experiences
  • sharing your values and beliefs with future generations
  • telling your stories so they won’t be lost
  • expressing love and blessings for those that you cherish
  • supporting your legal estate planning documents by explaining charitable or personal financial decisions, and
  • coming to terms with death by providing a healing sense of completion.

An ethical will can be one of the most valuable gifts you leave behind.

What Should You Include in an Ethical Will?

Following is a list of some of the things you might include in an ethical will. This list is not exhaustive; you should pick and choose what feels appropriate to you, considering whether there are additional meaningful elements you want to add.

  • family history
  • cultural, personal, and spiritual values or beliefs
  • important life lessons and wisdom gleaned from your experiences
  • blessings, love, hopes, and dreams for others
  • expressions of or requests for forgiveness
  • reasons for charitable and personal financial decisions
  • personal stories about items of property left to inheritors, and
  • how you would like to be remembered after death.

You may be tempted to include instructions about funeral services, burial, or cremation in an ethical will. While it’s far better to do that than not leave such instructions at all, there’s a more legally sound way to document your wishes for final arrangements.

To learn about preparing a document that covers funeral and body disposition wishes that will be legally valid in your state, see Planning and Paying for a Funeral.

Ideas for Creating an Ethical Will

There is no formula for making an ethical will. It is a deeply personal reflection and it can take any form you choose. Likewise, you may prefer to share your ethical will with loved ones before you die, or you can leave it for them to find later -- some people even set up emails to be sent to family and friends after death.

Here are a number of ways to leave your ethical legacy:

  • write an open letter to your family, friends, and community
  • make a video or audio recording -- now, smart phones make this simple
  • use greeting cards that you make or buy
  • write a poem or story, or transcribe your favorite poems, quotes, or stories from others
  • buy or choose copies of your favorite books and inscribe them for your loved ones

There are also many resources and services to help you prepare an ethical will. You’ll find several listed at the bottom of this article.

Storing Your Ethical Will

If you won’t pass on your ethical will right away, be sure to store it in a safe place. If you’ve made a video, DVD, or audio recording, test it periodically to ensure that it works. You may want to keep your ethical will with your legal will or other important documents. Be sure your loved ones know what to look for -- and where.

Keeping Your Ethical Will Up to Date

Review your ethical will every couple of years or so -- to make sure it accurately reflects your beliefs and intentions. You may wish revise your ethical will if:

  • your marital or partnership status changes
  • you have new kids, stepkids, or grandkids, or
  • your feelings or thoughts about the messages you’ve left have changed .

For More Information

For detailed guidance on writing a letter to your loved ones and a fully organized system for passing on important documents and information, see Get It Together, by Melanie Cullen.

To find publications and a workbook designed specifically to help you prepare and ethical will or legacy letter, visit Celebrations of Life.

To store your digital assets and send final emails to family, friends, or colleagues after your death, you can use a service such as Legacy Locker.

For more information about creating your legal estate plan, see the Wills, Trusts & Probate section of Nolo.com.

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