Q: In connection with creating our estate planning documents, my husband and I would like to leave our children and grandchildren something more than just our money and assets. We would like to leave them a sense of our values. A friend mentioned something to us about an “Ethical Will”. Can you tell us anything about them?
A. Yes. An Ethical Will is a statement in your own words expressing your values, hopes for the future, family history, emotions, and anything else that you would like to pass on to your loved ones. It deals with values, rather than with assets. It’s really a very old concept: one of the earliest references is found in the Book of Genesis, chapter 49, where Jacob gathers his 12 children around him and gives them his charge for their futures. Initially, Ethical Wills were transmitted orally, but eventually they were written down. Although an ethical will is not a legal document, it can be a valuable complement to legal documents. It can be an expression of love, a statement of personal or family history, a statement of lessons learned in life, a wish for the future of your loved ones, or anything else that you would like to pass on down as a personal legacy.
An Ethical Will is really a personal statement that carries your “voice” to future generations. It can be as simple as a one-page letter of love to a novella length memoir detailing your life experiences. In our family, we actually went a step further and videotaped my grandmother over a number of sittings, a project that ultimately took approximately 2 years to complete. We began with her earliest memories of growing up in Europe and covered all the history forward, all in her own voice. At times she broke into song, especially when our young children toddled into the room. That videotape, since turned into a DVD for preservation, is now a cherished family heirloom and each member of the family has a copy. We view it from time to time at family gatherings.
If you wish, your “Ethical Will” can be shared with your loved ones during your lifetime, and it can be added to from time to time. It is your spiritual legacy which can live on long after your will or trust has been permanently filed away.