Ethical Wills Part Two: What’s in an Ethical Will?
There are certain legal documents that anyone nearing end of life, or even those in the prime of life, should have in place before they go. The most common, of course, is a last will and testament to designate distribution of our worldly possessions. The next is an advance directive, or living will, which ensures our medical wishes are respected if we become incapacitated.
More and more people are preparing a third document they consider just as important as their legal preparations: an ethical will. Ethical wills have been part of the Jewish tradition for thousands of years. They’ve now gone mainstream as a way to ensure that one’s personal beliefs, life lessons, values, and hopes for future generations are documented for survivors.
An ethical will isn’t a legal document; in fact, it’s more like a personal letter. Some people even refer to it as a “legacy letter.” The letter can be long or short, handwritten or typed, straightforward or eloquent, in story form or bullet-points. Basically, an ethical will can contain anything you’d like your loved ones to know about you after you’re gone.
Values and beliefs
In her book The Forever Letter, author Rabbi Elana Zaiman writes that an ethical will is about sharing “what matters most” to the writer: “our beliefs, wisdom, love, appreciation, forgiveness, and more.” Some of the values that matter to Zaiman may resonate with others, including live your truth, give, take responsibility, never stop asking questions, be positive, love, show compassion, follow your dreams, listen, and express gratitude.
You could also express your beliefs and values by thinking about your personal moral compass, or the qualities that you think compose your particular character or life philosophy. It might be as simple as, “do the right thing,” or “always be yourself.” Those who believe in a higher power might write about why they believe in God, or what being a part of the Muslim faith has meant to them.
Writing about your personal values and beliefs isn’t done necessarily to convince your loved ones to follow in your footsteps; it’s more about providing them with a better understanding of you and your own life, and perhaps help them learn a little something from your decisions and mistakes.
Which leads to a second potential category of ethical content: life lessons. We all make mistakes, and the best we can do is learn from them. Sharing a story in your ethical will of something that happened to you and how your life changed afterwards may help your survivors avoid the same error.
Likewise, writing about something positive that happened to you, like the time you stood up for something you believed in or made a hard decision that paid off in the end will give your readers guidance for their own life choices. Even sharing personal memories of important events like your wedding day, first day of school, or the day your first child was born, or anecdotes about your own parents or siblings will be meaningful to your readers.
Love and forgiveness
Perhaps the most poignant portion of an ethical will could be the inclusion of personal expressions of love or pleas for forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if you’ve told your children that you love them a million times or if you’ve never said the words out loud; recording your true feelings about them for posterity will ensure that they know exactly what they meant to you.
Also, asking for forgiveness may have been too difficult to do face-to-face, but including in your letter apologies for things that have weighed heavily on your mind, like missing ball games due to work or admitting that you were too dependent on alcohol or drugs, can be life-changing for both you and your readers.
Hopes for the future
Remembering that an ethical will is not a legal directive, but a highly personal communication among loved ones, including your hopes for your family members’ futures can offer important guidance to those you leave behind. For example, an ethical will may include statements like, “I’ve always dreamed that all of my grandchildren would have the opportunity to earn a college degree,” or “I hope you’ll continue our tradition of being together in church on Easter Sunday.”
What not to include
While there are are truly no boundaries on what you could include in an ethical will, experts like Jo Kline Cebuhar, J.D., author of So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will warns against using this document to say hurtful things or get in the last word of an ongoing dispute. “Your ethical will is the wrong place to stick it to those left behind,” says Cebuhar. It’s also not the place to share your disappointment in a family member’s behavior or life choices.
Ideally, your ethical will or legacy letter will be treasured and passed along to future generations who will continue to learn from it. You may preserve it digitally for posterity, handwrite and personally deliver individualized versions, or even ask that your letter be read at your funeral. It’s your ethical will; what you choose to write and do with it is completely up to you.
In the last two installments of this series we’ll review some examples of ethical wills and see how offering templates for composing legacy letters or assistance creating ethical wills as part of a preneed package might benefit your clients and your business.