An ethical will, or legacy letter, is a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community.
An ethical will is not a legal document; it does not distribute your material wealth. It is a heartfelt expression of what truly matters most in your life.
Ethical wills are not new. References to this tradition are found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible (Genesis Ch. 49, John Ch. 15-18) and in other cultures. Today, ethical wills are being written by people at turning points and transitions in their lives and when facing challenging life situations. They are usually shared with family and community while the writer is still alive.
An ethical will may be one of the most cherished and meaningful gifts you can leave to your family and community.
Listen to this moving story from National Public Radio about why one woman decided to write an ethical will for her young children:
Why write an Ethical Will?
- It helps us identify what we value most and what we stand for.
- By articulating what we value now, we can take steps to ensure the continuation of those values for future generations.
- We learn a lot about ourselves in the process of writing an ethical will.
- It helps us come to terms with our mortality by creating something of meaning that will live on after we are gone.
- It provides a sense of completion in our lives.
- If we don’t tell our stories and the stories from whom we come, no one else will and they will be lost forever.
- We all want to be remembered, and we all will leave something behind.
What's in an Ethical Will?
Historically, ethical wills have contained blessings, personal and spiritual values, and burial instructions. Here is a partial list of common themes seen in more modern ethical wills:
- Important personal values and beliefs
- Important spiritual values
- Hopes and blessings for future generations
- Life’s lessons
- Forgiving others and asking for forgiveness
When would I write an Ethical Will?
Today, the overall divorce rate in our society has “declined” to about 50%. However, 70% of divorces occur within the first 5 years of marriage. An ethical will can help a couple to clearly understand each other’s values, and it can contribute to building a foundation of common values for the marriage. Many clergy are attending to this issue today.
Expectant and New Parents:
It’s been said that children don’t come with a “user’s manual.” An ethical will at this stage will provide a foundation of common values upon which to approach child rearing. In addition, an ethical will can help in conflict resolution by increasing the understanding of each other’s important values.
Even in divorce, an ethical will can provide some security and reassurance for the children involved, by providing tangible evidence of what’s important to their parents. It’s even possible that in a divorce situation, the “blame factor” might be minimized.
For growing families, an ethical will can be used to teach values to our children. By writing these values on a document, it has the potential to improve communication with our children.
Provides the opportunity to launch adult children and enter into a new relationship phase.
Middle Age and Beyond:
This is one life stage that writing an ethical will is most fitting. It is an opportunity to harvest our life experiences, convert these experience into wisdom, and allow for the fulfillment of the responsibility of passing this wisdom on to future generations
End of Life:
If energy and time permits, writing an ethical will at the end of life adds a transcendent dimension to our lives by providing a link to future generations. In essence, you are providing your legacy of values and beliefs for a time when you are gone.
Martha Bird speaks about the experience of writing her ethical will with the help of a Celebrations of Life Legacy Facilitator.
I think the world would be a lot better off if more people were to define themselves in terms of their own standards and values and not what other people said or thought about them.—