Writing an Ethical Will – Legacy Development

Bequeathing Who You are and What You Stand for

In the course of preparing this chapter I mentioned to a client that I would be writing about ethical wills, “I thought all your wills were ethical,” he deadpanned.

While a legal will bequeaths valuables, an ethical will bequeaths values, such as how to lead a moral and upright life. Questions of the heart and soul may creep in as we age – have I fulfilled my purpose? What will I be remembered for? What kind of legacy have I passed on to my family and others?

While not legally binding, ethical wills are excellent vehicles for clarifying and communicating the meaning of our lives to our families. Those who want to be remembered authentically and for their gifts of heart, mind and spirit, can take satisfaction in knowing what they hold most valued is “on the record,” not to be lost of forgotten. Imagine the richness that might be added to our lives if we had a legacy such as this from our grandparents or our great-grandparents of whom many of us know little if anything at all.

An early example of an ethical will occurs in Shakespeare's Hamlet where Polonius advises his son, Laertes:

“Give every many thy ear, but few thy voice, Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment... Neither a borrower not a lender (be), For (loan) oft loses both itself and friend... This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false of any man.”

In ancient times, most people had little opportunity to control the distribution of their property (assuming they owned any); however, they were free to speak their minds as it related to the disposition of “moral” assets. Ethical wills were particularly advantageous outlets for women, since society's rules usually precluded them from writing a legal will or dispensing property as they wished. Historians have found examples of ethical wills authored by women during the medieval period, usually in the form of letters or books written to the children.

People usually associate the term “will” with “after death.” Legal wills are read after death. At one time ethical wills were passed on and read after death as well; however, that's less often the case today. A living will, on the other hand, is a document that contains specific instructions about medically related issues, meant to be followed while the person is still alive but unable to communicate his or her wishes directly at the time these decision points are reached.

What all three types of wills have in common is the fact that they provide instructions to others as to the intentions of the author.

When considering what you might include in your ethical will it may be productive to consider your past, present and future. Some of our values and beliefs have been passed on to us from our predecessors. Our own life experiences shape our character and help form a foundation of our values and principles. Looking into the future we might ponder what we may yet come to and what we have left to do.

Common Themes in Ethical Wills

Common Themes From Our Past:

  • Meaningful personal or family stories
  • Lessons learned from personal or familial experience
  • Regrets

Common Themes From the Present:

  • Personal values and beliefs
  • Values and beliefs of the author's faith community
  • Expressions of love and gratitude
  • Apologies

Common Themes From the Future:

  • Blessings, dreams, and hopes for present and future generations
  • Advice and guidance
  • Requests
  • Funeral plans

Creating an Ethical Will is a way to:

  • Learn about myself
  • Reflect on my life
  • Affirm myself

An Ethical Will is a Forum in Which to:

  • Fill in knowledge gaps of will recipients by providing historic or ancestral information that links generations
  • Convey feelings, thoughts, and “truths”, that are hard to say face-to-face
  • Express regrets and apologies
  • Open the door to forgiving and being forgiven
  • Come to terms with my mortality

Writing an Ethical Will may be:

  • A spiritual experience that provides a sense of completion to my life
  • A loving undertaking that helps my loved ones “let go” when my time comes

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