Barry Baines, MD, has worked with families and patients over the years, many of whom have used CaringBridge. It is because of these experiences, as well as his role with Celebrations of Life, Barry is passionate about sharing information around legacy and helping families throughout all stages of planning.  This article was originally published on the Caring Bridge Amplifier Hub.

In our previous Amplifier Hub blog post, “What Does Legacy Mean to You”, we provided a context for understanding what leaving a legacy is about and why legacy is important to us. We shared the idea of a Legacy Journey®, which includes three pathways: your legacy of values, wisdom, and generosity.

In this post, I would like to delve into your legacy of values, which takes the form of an ethical will (also referred to as a legacy letter). I will share what an ethical will is, their history and why people write them. I will also share a writing exercise at the end of the post that you can complete to begin to create your own ethical will.

What is an ethical will or legacy letter?
Simply stated, an ethical will is a way to document and share your values, beliefs, faith, life lessons, hopes, love, and forgiveness with family, friends and community. Read three examples of ethical wills:

Ethical will written by a hospice patient.
Ethical will written by a friend with no biological children.
Ethical will written by an individual reflecting on his first six decades of life.

History of ethical wills
Ethical wills are not a new idea as Amplifier and CaringBridge user, Beth Keathley shared in her Amplifier Hub post last year. The history dates to scriptural writing. The Hebrew Bible, (Genesis Ch. 49) is generally regarded as the first example of an ethical will. Jacob gathers his sons around his deathbed and dispenses blessings, advice, and instructions.

Originally shared orally, ethical wills have evolved into written documents. It is important to note that ethical wills are not considered legal documents, in contrast to wills for inheritance and living wills.

There has been a rediscovery of ethical wills over the past 10 to 15 years, and many people are writing and sharing them at life transition points.

Why write an ethical will?
In my experience, most often people engage in the process of writing an ethical will to: father-child-fishing-oakleyoriginals

  • honor the past, by connecting to family history and our roots.
  • capture the present, by identifying what is most significant and meaningful in our lives.
  • inform the future, by leaving a legacy of our spirit–our blessings, life lessons, and hopes for the future.

When and how to write an ethical will.
Though originally associated with someone’s final days, ethical wills are now written at life transitions, during challenging situations, milestones, births, during times of loss or illness, or anytime the spirit moves you.

Recent published research indicates that if you know about your family history and stories, you are likely to be more resilient in the face of adversity and better able to cope with life’s challenges. So, in a way, your ethical will may create a legacy of resiliency for your family.

As I close this post, I would like to leave you with some homework to do over the next month:

This writing exercise is called Linking the Generations. Take a moment to answer the questions below. These questions are supposed to guide you to creating your own ethical will with your lifestyle in mind.

Write down the name of a deceased relative who you may have been named after, or who you may have heard stories or “legends” about when you were growing up.

Imagine that you could go back in time for several hours and meet that person and talk to them. What questions about them and their lives would you want to ask them about? What information about them would you like to have to carry with you when you return to the present?

Imagine it is 75 years into the future. When future generations want to know more about you and your life, these questions that you would pose to your ancestors, are similar to the questions future generations would want to know about you!

Have you heard of an ethical will or legacy letter before? Have you written one? Why or why not?

© 2013 Celebrations of Life Services Inc. 651.600.6412

Photo courtesy to OakleyOriginals

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