“Words fly away,

what’s written remains”

Questions & Answers

What is an ethical will?

The short answer is it’s a love letter to your heirs. The long answer is an 800 year old tradition of creating a letter to your loved ones, setting down evidence of what was important to you.

Who might want to create one?

All those who understand that the most valuable things they have to give are not material. Someone who wants to share some of their life stories and lessons in a way that is helpful and enduring, without writing an autobiography or memoir.

What is the history of the ethical will?

What had always been an oral tradition was first formalized into a written one in the 12 th century, when Jewish fathers began writing their sons letters of instruction about what it meant to live a worthy and ethical life. These came to be known as “ethical wills.” The value of this loving custom resonates today with people of all ages and traditions.

What is the relationship of an ethical will and a legal will?

An ethical will is strictly personal. It has no legal weight, but as a component of an estate plan, can be a meaningful instrument for realizing the broadest definition of legacy.

What could you include in an ethical will?

There is no such thing as a standard ethical will. What they have in common is that each author has considered what they want their audience to know without question, and committed to putting it down in an enduring fashion. It might be an expression of love and gratitude, or reflections on life experiences that reflect core values and lessons learned. It can be a place to preserve information or family stories. Ethical wills are an excellent place to provide explanations of decisions behind an estate plan or charitable bequest, or as a place to document the story behind the money. Some ethical wills take the form of lists of snippets of wisdom, or in one case a list of favorite movies. Watch these, said its author, and you will understand me. Read some excerpts.

What should you exclude?

Language that is critical, negative or controlling. From their earliest days, ethical wills were meant to be helpful, positive, loving and wise.

What are the steps in creating an ethical will?

Consider your audience and your primary intention in order to find a focus. Ethical wills are usually short, between 1-10 pages. Start by writing something that will come easily to you; for many this is an expression of gratitude. Most importantly, be yourself. The most timeless messages are often the simplest and most straightforward. It is good to think of an ethical will as a work in progress, just as you are. Date and sign what you are working on, make sure it can be found, and feel free to add to it or change it as time and inspiration allow.

Would someone create more than one ethical will?

Ethical wills are created for an audience you identify by name, as in any letter. You could write a common letter to a named group (i.e. To my dearest children…), compose a number of different individual letters (i.e. Dear Peter…) or a combination – a common message with personalized messages added on.

Could you record a video or audio ethical will?

Yes, and that is an appealing option for some. However, always create, print and sign a transcript of the recording, as data storage and technology can quickly become outdated, and you have created something for posterity.

Might an ethical will be shared during life?

Yes. Ethical wills are monologues, but can be even more powerful when they are catalysts for dialogues built on the foundation of what was expressed in the ethical will, which are often reflections difficult to fully articulate in person.

What is the best advice for getting started?

Don’t put it off. You never know the future. Don’t over complicate it. Write something that would feel complete in a page or two. Often what’s most essential to say doesn’t actually take a lot of room (i.e. Thank you for what you have given me…I’ve loved you from the minute I laid eyes on you…Five things my life has taught me…The vision behind my decision…) You can always add to it later, but you’ve written something of great value even if you never get back to it.

What surprises people who create an ethical will?

How rewarding and affirming a process it is, grounding them as it does in what brings meaning to their lives. It is very satisfying.