Ethical Wills Part 1: What is an Ethical Will?
People prepare for end-of-life challenges and impending death in different ways. Checking off adventures from a bucket list may take precedence for some, while others may devote their remaining days, months, or years to spending as much time as possible with the ones they love. For most, though, ensuring that their healthcare, finances, and worldly possessions will all be properly managed before and after they’re gone is an unavoidable necessity. Often the simple desire to tidy up loose ends and relieve potential burdens for loved ones is motivation enough to “get one’s house in order” well in advance of death.
Creating a last will and testament and a living will can certainly help from a legal standpoint. Living wills, or healthcare directives, will keep family members from having to make difficult medical decisions when a loved one becomes incapacitated. Last wills designate how assets will be distributed or disposed of upon death, hopefully eliminating personal and legal disputes over who gets what.
But there’s another end-of-life document that more and more people are choosing to leave behind: an ethical will.
Not a new idea
Instead of detailing the distribution of monetary wealth or physical assets, ethical wills (sometimes called legacy letters) are written to leave behind a “wealth of wisdom” or “moral assets.” Ethical wills typically express lessons learned from the past, an honest evaluation of the present, and their wishes for their loved ones’ future. For some people, it’s more important to pass along their values than their valuables to the next generations.
Although ethical wills have enjoyed a resurgence in the past four or five decades, they’ve actually been around in both oral and written form since Biblical times. In Deuteronomy 33 and John 15-17, both Moses and Jesus verbally bid farewell and impart sage advice and blessings to their followers. Later, scholars left behind writings encouraging students to continue learning from their teachings even after their deaths. During the Middle Ages, families would create documents that included their wishes for final disposition as well as their hopes for their descendants. Historians have found that this type of writing was especially popular with women, who may not be recognized legally, but still desired to leave a legacy for loved ones.
Ethical wills have always been an integral element of Jewish culture. Known as a tzava’ot, the ethical will became especially important during the Holocaust, when Jews would record their calls for vengeance from future generations for the atrocities they suffered. After the Holocaust, ethical wills became a tool for survivors to help other Jews understand how they held onto their faith through all they endured.
Ethical wills today
These days, the concept of creating an ethical will has gained ground with all cultures, genders, and ages. Although later life stages or terminal diagnoses are often the impetus to review and record values, beliefs, and life lessons, some people feel the urge to write an ethical will while coming to terms with transitional events like childbirth, marriage, or major illness or surgery. The process itself can be quite cathartic for some, forcing them to come to terms with decisions they’ve made, apologize for things they’ve done, and say things they’ve never been able to verbalize. For those at end-of-life, an ethical will can help them come to terms with their mortality and help them “let go” when the time comes.
Ethical wills could and probably should go hand-in-hand with the preparation of not only legal wills, but also funeral and final disposition planning. In this series, we’ll review what’s typically included in an ethical will, share some examples, and explore some ways that you could include and perhaps even monetize the ethical will preparation process in your preneed offerings.