Couple walking across the street talking about an Ethical Will.

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Ethical Wills: What You Need to Know

An Ethical Will can be a meaningful document to create and include as part of your Estate Plan. Learn what an Ethical Will is and how to start creating one.

Originally part of ancient Hebrew culture, the concept of an Ethical Will has been passed down for generations. Today, however, the idea has taken a broader appeal, as folks look back on their lives and want to pass on more than just assets to their Beneficiaries. 

Technically, an Ethical Will has no legal bearing. It’s simply communication left by someone who passed away, written for those who survive them. Ethical Wills are usually written for family and close friends. 

However, the name Ethical Will implies something more than just a personal message – it offers the sense of honor and promise, a way for you to pass something, a legacy, on to those you leave behind. Read on to learn more about what Ethical Wills are, why you should write one, and what to include in yours. 

What is an Ethical Will?

An Ethical Will is a gift you leave your loved ones. It’s a way you can express your experiences, values, and other important themes and life lessons you want to pass down. Unlike traditional Wills, there’s no money or property passed on through Ethical Wills. Instead, what you’re sharing is your wisdom and advice with loved ones. 

In many ways, this kind of advice-giving can offer far more than anything of monetary value can. Generally, an Ethical Will – also sometimes referred to as a legacy letter – focuses on a personal link from one family generation to the next. 

You can use an Ethical Will to pass on history, thoughts, life lessons, blessings, apologies, hopes, wishes, memories, and more.

What is the Purpose of an Ethical Will?

Culture is often a big theme in an Ethical Will. The document isn't necessarily about detailing to-do lists or listing out grievances. Instead, many people who leave Ethical Wills do so with the intention of keeping their family heritage alive and preserved. 

Sometimes an Ethical Will is used to pass on family secrets or topics that maybe haven’t been fully discussed otherwise. They can be a great way to help recipients develop confidence for their life ahead based on the writer’s experiences and memories. 

What is an Ethical Will Letter?

Unlike a legal estate plan, an Ethical Will letter is almost always written in a personal tone and voice. It typically references your own biography or memories from your life. It can be enhanced with a number of direct, personal messages to readers about your hopes for the future. In short, an Ethical Will offers you the chance to say some of the things you may not have the chance to prior to passing. 

The topics aren’t limited to blessings or wishes, though. These letters can include guidance, help, directions, and even directives that you hope to pass on. It can be used to explain actions in life, why financial decisions were made the way they were, and stories behind the assets distributed in your estate plan.  

Remember: an Ethical Will is not the same thing as any other type of Will. It’s not used to direct how assets should be distributed or to identify beneficiaries.

Why Write an Ethical Will?

There’s not much in the world that lasts after a person passes on. Just about all property gets distributed and, in many cases, much of it is often liquidated (as long as either that’s what the estate plan dictates).

It’s a simple part of life that occurs again and again. Estates can be dissolved, and next generations move on. But family history and heritage can have a far longer life if preserved the right way and passed on from one generation to the next. Similar to family photographs, an Ethical Will can be a link for the young to tie back to past generations who lived before they were born. 

Additionally, Ethical Wills can help explain things such as decisions that were made with health directives that might have seemed shocking to relatives and loved ones. They can be a way to ensure personal memories – like photographs, favorite recipes, or other things that may not hold much in terms of financial value – be passed down. 

What Should Be Included in an Ethical Will?

Again, the Ethical Will is not a legal document, so don’t approach it that way. Instead, it could be used as documentation and explanation of interests and wishes that are executed in a Will or Trust. This can include a discussion of personal values, wants, and expectations, both in the past and for the future.

Ethical Wills might include a description or instructions on how the recipient should implement or take advantage of the wisdom and information that’s being shared. It can lay out a plan and purpose for the recipient, according to the writer’s ideals and wishes. 

There’s no formal or standard structure or form to an Ethical Will. You can use any format you like – from creative to formal – there’s no wrong way to write an Ethical Will. 

Ethical Wills can be used to share:

  • Favorite things

  • Memories about your professional experiences and life

  • Things you learned in life

  • Recipes

  • Photographs

  • Experiences that shaped you

  • Your values

  • What you believe in

  • Your hopes for your loved ones’ futures

How Do You Start an Ethical Will?

Ethical Will examples are a start, but they’re typically not the end product. That’s because the document should be personal and specific to your own life and situation and the interests you want to be communicated. 

So, think of examples as more of a basic path to follow. And while they can be helpful, there’s no requirement to use a template. In fact, they’re really just intended to help you frame ideas in a cohesive way that seems to make sense, not as a hard, fast, set-in-stone template. 

To get started, you can:

Think about important, life-changing moments and events you lived:

  • The day your mother/father and I married…

  • The day you were born…

  • When I graduated from college…

Discuss difficulties you endured, and ultimately, overcame:

  • When I didn’t get hired there, I thought my life was over, but…

  • The summer we moved across the country, I was devastated and lonely, but little did I know…

Recall your happiest times in life:

  • Giving you away and watching you start your own family was…

  • That family trip we took…

  • Every Thanksgiving that we spent at the cabin…

How to Write an Ethical Will

Start off with a basic letter to the intended recipient. Consider this first step a rough draft. Start off with a personal address to the reader, use their names, nicknames, or a term of endearment.

Feeling stuck already? A good exercise is to just write for 15 minutes in a bit of a brainstorming session. Let it flow and get the topics that you want to cover out. Many people are surprised by how much writing can happen in that little amount of time, when they’re just focusing on getting the words out.

Now that you have something on paper, the second phase involves organizing and reflecting. You might find that certain ideas even spark new things you want to cover, or you’ll think of things that were missed – and that’s okay. 

Remember that most often, your first draft won’t be your last. You’re going to move things around, reword them, and add more as you fine tune your final message to your loved ones. Sometimes, as you work through the process, a theme may start to start to develop – many people end up using that theme as an overarching messaging throughout the entire document.

Now, in the third step, review your Ethical Will objectively – think about the following: 

  • Does it make sense? 

  • Does the document convey your wishes and thoughts clearly? 

  • Would it make sense to you if you were the reader?

More revisions and changes are perfectly normal. You may find this process is repeated a couple of times, maybe over a number of days, until you reach a final version that works and says exactly what you want to convey.

With the document almost done, you should include some type of closer. Common ways to end your Ethical Will could be with a final wish or a blessing. Some people choose to end with a request, perhaps asking for the reader to do something or to act in a certain way.

Finally, read the letter again. Does it make sense? Does it open and close smoothly? Would you feel moved by the letter if it was addressed to you? 

If it feels right, then the document is complete. Now be sure to include it with your other Will, Trust, and estate plan documents. It’s ready to be delivered when the time comes. 

Have you created an effective and protective estate plan yet? Did you include an Ethical Will in there? If you haven’t done so yet, what’s stopping you? At Trust & Will, we’re here to help keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific estate plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning options today!

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