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Ethical Wills – Bequeathing “Values” to Your Family

by Phil Levin, Esq. on September 1st, 2020
Ethical Wills

While a legal Will bequeaths valuables to your beneficiaries, an Ethical Will bequeaths your values, such as how to lead a moral and upright life.

For many of our clients who engage us to design and implement their estate plans, questions of the heart and soul often arise, especially as we get older. Some of these questions include:

– Have I fulfilled my purpose?

– What will I be remembered for?

– What kind of legacy will I pass along to my family?

While not legally binding, Ethical Wills are excellent vehicles for clarifying and communicating the meaning of our lives to our families. Individuals who want to be remembered authentically, and for their gifts of heart, mind and spirit, can take satisfaction in knowing what they hold most valued is “on the record,” not to be lost or forgotten. Imagine the richness that might be added to our lives if we had a legacy of values, which we received from our grandparents or our great-grandparents, of whom many of us know little if anything at all.

An early example of an Ethical Will occurs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius advised his son, Laertes:

“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice,
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement…
Neither a borrower not a lender (be),
For (loan) oft loses both itself and friend…
This above all: to thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false of any man.”

In ancient times, most people had little opportunity to control the distribution of their property (assuming they owned any); however, they were free to speak their minds as it related to the disposition of “moral” assets. In fact, Ethical Wills were particularly advantageous for women, since society’s rules usually precluded women from writing a legal will or dispensing property as they wished.

Historians have found examples of Ethical Wills authored by women during the medieval period, usually in the form of letters or books written to their children.

People usually associate the term “will” with “after death.” Legal wills are read after death. At one time Ethical Wills were passed on and read after death as well; however, that’s less often the case today.

A Living Will, on the other hand, is a document that contains specific instructions about medically related issues, meant to be followed while the person is still alive but unable to communicate his or her wishes directly to medical care providers when required.

What all three types of Wills have in common is the fact that they provide instructions to others as to the intentions of the author.

When considering what you might include in your Ethical Will, it may be wise to consider your past, present and future. Hopefully, some important values and beliefs we now have were passed on to us from our parents and grandparents. Our own life experiences shape our character and help form a foundation of our values and principles. By examining our believes and values, we might ponder what we
may desire to include in an Ethical Will for our surviving family members.

Common Themes in Ethical Wills

Common themes from our past:

– Meaningful personal or family stories

– Lessons learned from personal or family experiences

– Regrets

Common themes from the present:

– Personal values and beliefs

– Values and beliefs of the author’s faith

– Expressions of love and gratitude

– Apologies

Common themes for the future:

– Blessings, dreams, and hopes for present and future generations

– Advice and guidance

Creating an Ethical Will is a way to:

– Learn about yourself

– Reflect on your life

– Affirm yourself and your values

An Ethical Will is a forum in which to:

– Fill in knowledge gaps for your beneficiaries by providing historic or ancestral
information that links generations

– Convey feelings, thoughts, and “truths”, that are often hard to say face-to-face

– Express regrets and apologies

– Open the door to forgiving and being forgiven

– Come to terms with your mortality

Writing an Ethical Will may be:

– A spiritual experience that provides a sense of completion to your life

– A way for you to convey a sense of undertaking that helps your loved ones “let go” upon your passing

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