You’re accustomed to seeing personal-finance articles on this site, and a quick scan of the archives will reveal every imaginable personal-finance subject.
You’ll find blogs about the best zero-percent-APR credit cards and how to track down the best high-yield savings accounts. You’ll spot posts on financial plans and funding home purchases and college educations. And you’ll see deep dives into estate-planning tools like powers of attorney, living trusts and wills.
But this week, it’s high time FiveCentNickel looked at a different kind of will, one that allows you to pass to your heirs values rather than valuables. I’m talking about a document called the ethical will, sometimes referred to as a legacy letter.
Clearly stating who will receive your financial and personal assets after your death is critical. But as has been said too many times to enumerate, the most lasting things in life often have little or nothing to do with money.
If you’ve prepared well to bequeath your assets to those who will follow, bravo. But take time to pass along something likely to be even more cherished.
While some ethical wills these days take the form of audio or video recordings, they are more typically hand-written documents of no longer than two pages. In them, those crafting their ethical wills bestow upon their recipients statements of love, blessings and crucial lessons learned over their lives.
Ethical wills have become better known among mainstream populations in recent years, but the tradition dates all the way back to the Old Testament, where in Genesis 49:1-33, a dying Jacob gathers his sons to bestow blessings.
Embraced in Jewish tradition for centuries, ethical wills have more recently been cited as indispensable tools in estate planning by the American Bar Association, and as an aid in healthcare and spiritual healing.
In the paragraphs to follow, let’s take a look at what people include in an ethical will, what kinds of folks are recipients of the ethical will and, above all, the benefits likely to flow to both recipient and writer of the document.
Inside the ethical will
According to Celebrations of Life, a St. Paul, Minnesota organization that provides a legacy journey experience to those it serves, an ethical will may seem at first to be a difficult document to prepare. But thinking of it as a love letter to your children, grandchildren and friends is a great way to overcome trepidations.
As the organization’s website proclaims, “ethical wills can include personal and spiritual values, hopes, experience, love and forgiveness.”
Celebrations of Life recommends choosing one of several approaches to your ethical will. One is to write the ethical will over time as thoughts and ideas come to you. Another is to follow a guided writing approach to ethical-will writing, using such aids as The Ethical Wills/Legacy Letters Workbook, or Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Or seek out an ethical will facilitator who can help you prepare your document in person or in classroom sessions with others.
One typical theme in ethical wills is a memory of a person, event or place that was crucial in helping the ethical will preparer absorb a vital life lesson.
So says Edna C. Groves, whose Naperville, Illinois-based firm, Words That Endure, helps people craft their own ethical wills. Perhaps there’s a painful event you lived through early in your life that helped impart a lesson or a person took you aside and offered invaluable guidance you badly needed. Maybe it’s a place that gave you solace and support, and where you came to adopt a life philosophy that comforted and inspired you throughout your years.
Above all, ethical wills should be positive, expressing love, hope and dreams for those who will continue on after you pass away. They can also relate family history concerning personal heirlooms bequeathed to loved ones, ask for forgiveness for some mistake, or suggest ways to be remembered.
Gifts of love, learning
Stories abound of people whose greatest possession is the handwritten legacy letter passed on to them by a beloved parent or favorite grandparent.
There are those who take out such documents from a lock box and read them again on important occasions like the anniversary of the loved one’s death, a holiday or an anniversary of some familial event. “The greatest gift I ever got from her was that letter, ” is a not-uncommon sentiment from a recipient.
However, ethical wills often benefit the preparer of the document as much or more than they do recipients. Many people who after procrastinating for years at last craft an ethical will feel like the weight of the world has been lifted from their shoulders. And according to Groves, if given during one’s lifetime, ethical wills have the power to strengthen bonds and heal family and personal rifts.
I won’t suggest you soft pedal the estate planning process. By all means make sure you dot every “I” and cross every “T” of those documents. But while making sure your estate plan is complete, also give some thought to crafting an ethical will. It may become the inheritance your loved ones value most.