Writing an Ethical Will

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 or 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.

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.

An example of an ethical will occurs in Hamlet where Polonius advises his son, Laertes: "Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice,
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement...
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."

An ethical will is a forum in which to: (1) fill in knowledge gaps of heirs by providing historic or ancestral information that links generations (2) convey feelings, thoughts, and "truths", that are hard to say face-to-face (3) express regrets and apologies (4) open the door to forgiving and being forgiven, and (5) come to terms with my mortality.

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