Ethical Will 101

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There’s more than one type of will. A legal will, the traditional will used to allocate property and assets, is not always enough.

Enter the ethical will, sometimes called a legacy letter. Able to convey to your family what you value, your experiences, and your life lessons, an ethical will is completely voluntary — and worthwhile to your family’s legacy. Traditionally for fathers and sons, an ethical will is an excellent way for anyone to pass on their life vision.

Everyone has a stories they leave behind, but not everyone knows they can catalog those stories, accomplishments and values into an ethical will. Want your great, great, great grandchild to know the story behind the baseball she inherited? An ethical will can do that.

Like an autobiography, an ethical will is a chance to reflect on your life, stories, values, and accomplishments before you’re gone. Many people use them to discover even more about themselves, and then pass that information along to further generations.

Like a love letter to your family, it can also contain blessings along with personal and spiritual values that will outlast your material possessions.

Like a treasured picture, it will give your loved ones a chance to remember you as you were. Want your grandkids to know about your honeymoon? An ethical will is the place to do that.

Ethical wills can also be used to pass on personal items that have more sentimental than monetary value, like:

-Hats and clothing
-Non-sellable artwork
-Unique, irreplaceable items that can’t be sold

As an addendum to a legal will, an ethical will can also give your survivors an idea of your thinking behind some of your property decisions, so those receiving your treasured items can understand them and you a little better.

There is no set time to begin writing an ethical will, though earlier in life is better. Ask yourself questions like: How do I want my family to remember me? What do I want my children to know? What do I wish for them in the future? What experiences did I treasure that I would like to share?

This need not be done all at once. Like life itself, an ethical will is to be created over time, amended as necessary, and should be considered a living document. Add to it in times of deep thought, good, bad or indifferent — making sure to add when possible, instead of waiting until disease or illness makes it too late. There’s no “too early” in writing an ethical will.

What are the most special events, moments, experiences of your life? What are your happiest times? Your worst? What surprises came up? What challenges did you overcome? What did you regret? Who has changed your life and how? Is there anything you wish you’d said sooner you’d like to share now?

These questions and those similar are a good start, but don’t worry about answering all the questions, just use them as a starting point to tell the story of your life. Many people start off by sharing stories told to them by their elders. Most people share experiences from childhood, values that got them to where they are, what they’re most proud of doing, and other heartfelt reminders like how important kids are to you or how important education was to your life. If it was important to you, it’s important to include in your ethical will.

There is no legal or standard form for an ethical will, so feel free to make it your own. From office memo style to note or diary to formal correspondence, there are no rules on what you can and can’t do. Digital and artistic methods are also an option, though be sure to leave your ethical will in a form that will be readable by those you left behind.

Ethical wills can be written or started in journals, or in notebooks, but remember that this is not a diary. Diaries are great to find ideas or values you may have temporarily forgotten, but are typically a poor choice to also act as a final message to family and friends. Think of your diary as a draft and an ethical will as your final.

We recommend a computer with backup or multiple paper copies. An ethical will doesn’t do much good if the only copy is lost.

Anyone going through a major life change, including:

-Newly married couples who want to create a legacy of their own.
-Expectant parents looking to pass along what they were like and how they were raised.
-Divorcing couples, especially those with kids, who want to keep a sense of stability.
-Empty nesters waving goodbye to their adult children and transitioning to another life stage.

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