Originally a Hebrew tradition, an ethical will can be a document of spiritual and moral guidance, a message of love and compassion to future generations, or something else; meant as a means to encapsulate and put to words an individual’s beliefs, values, and wisdom, an ethical will may take the form of a letter, a poem, or a piece of prose.
An ethical will does not strictly serve a financial function in an estate plan, nor does it have a legal function. However, it does serve as the foundation or cornerstone of a person’s spiritual or moral legacy.
It has value for both the beneficiaries of the will and the author, providing a sense of who the author was in their lifetime for future generations to better understand their own family, while giving the author a sense of closure, and the opportunity to ascribe meaning to the life they have lived, and to put to words the lessons they have learned.
An ethical will may be any document or letter that outlines a person's values, beliefs, and life lessons to be passed down to future generations as a way of sharing their personal legacy.
Unlike a legal will, which focuses on distributing a person's material possessions after their death, an ethical will is intended to communicate a person's hopes, aspirations, and moral teachings to their loved ones. There is also no legal template, unlike a legal will or trust document.
An ethical will can take many forms, from a written document to an audio or video recording and can be created at any point in a person's life. In our modern era, an ethical will may range from a hand-written manifesto to a digital recording, a speech, a song, an oral story, or even a series of digital artworks, even in an interactive medium, like a computer program. There is no legal template or requirement that an ethical will must fulfill.
Historically, the ethical will was an element in Hebrew tradition, as a means of encouraging future generations to preserve crucial spiritual lessons, or to impart a piece of personal wisdom from an individual to their closest loved ones, usually in the form of a message of love. It wasn’t until the 20th and 21st centuries that the ethical will became popularized in estate planning circles for the general public.
Some people choose to create an ethical will as they approach the end of their life, while others may create one at a milestone event, such as the birth of a child, a marriage, or a significant birthday. A throughline for most of these documents is that positivity is key. These are messages meant to celebrate life, or to bring joy and encourage love. They are not products of hate or exclusion.
If you do not know what to write or where to begin, then consider getting creative with the contents of your ethical will. For example:
It should not be a chore or an obligation. However, the introspective journey of starting an ethical will can be spiritually and even psychologically healing, even if the end product is not something you ultimately wish to leave behind for your loved ones to see or read.
There is also no shame in hiring help, whether to compose words or to create art, so long as the message remains entirely yours.
When creating an ethical will, also consider longevity. The ethical wills of centuries past were either told orally – often at one’s death bed – or written in ink and parchment.
Digital mediums may last as long as your family continues to preserve and reformat the data into future formats, or you can immortalize your ethical will in more traditional ways, such as pen and paper. Take also into consideration that you may not only be speaking with your children or your grandchildren, but with descendants of yours a hundred years from now, or maybe even further in the future. Take the opportunity to give them an insight into the mind and experiences of the 21st century.
The purpose of an ethical will is to provide guidance, inspiration, and comfort to future generations by sharing a person's unique perspective, a snapshot in time and culture, an example of a person’s inner thoughts or experiences, immortalized in the same way a published book or work of art might capture an author or an artist’s thoughts.
The process of creating an ethical will can also be a meaningful and introspective experience, allowing a person to reflect on their life and the legacy they wish to leave behind, which can be its own reward. It is as much about giving something to future generations as it is about taking the time to consider what you have brought into this world, the good that you have sown, and the lessons you have learned for better or for worse.
An ethical will can also be a tool to help process the grief of losing loved ones near the end of one’s life, and an opportunity to positively reflect on the experiences of death and dying, and the value they bring to life.
The purpose of an ethical will is to leave something behind for your loved ones. It is up to you if you wish for them to see or read it before you die, or after.
How you plan to bring it to their attention is also for you to decide. In most cases, people will leave behind instructions on how to access their ethical will in their legal will, or leave the letter with their lawyer or executor. When the time comes, it will be delivered alongside the other estate planning documents, such as the living will, last testament, and trust.
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