Our Perspectives
Apr 26, 2023
Brendan Mitchell

Ethical Wills and Personal Legacy

Transferring the Intangibles

What are Ethical Wills?

Ethical wills, also known as legacy letters, are legally non-binding communications to younger generations that impart learned wisdom and life lessons, family history, affection and any other message that an author might wish to convey. Importantly, they are separate and apart from a financial legacy and a formal, legal estate plan directing the division of assets. To the extent they concern money or financial wealth at all (and no topic is required or really off-limits), they might express an appreciation and gratitude for the effort and work of earlier generations, and the author’s views on financial stewardship. Regardless of the topics that may be included, what is truly front and center in an ethical will is the personal link between one generation and the next (and even the next and the next). They are a way to pass on a person’s intangible wealth, providing something personal and lasting.

How to Create an Ethical Will

An ethical will is often written as a letter, but there is no one “right” way to do it. For instance, instead of a letter, an ethical will could take the form of an audio or video recording, a memoir, or even a bullet point list. The form is entirely up to the author, as is the content. Some common topics for ethical wills include fondest memories, challenges that the author has overcome and lessons learned, details concerning family history, and affection. Others are the author’s hopes and dreams for loved ones, explanations of decisions, or even favorite quotes, books or movies. The only messages that authors are really urged to avoid are negative messages that might tend to chastise, shame or attempt to control the recipients. Negative messages are considered to be outside the spirit and intent of ethical wills.

There are many resources that can help guide the creation of an ethical will, including a variety of books, professional coaches and facilitated workshops. Additionally, some law firms are now offering ethical will services in addition to traditional trust and estate planning. These types of resources can be very beneficial to an author and provide great frameworks to think about when crafting an ethical will – something to get a person started and keep them on track. Ultimately, however, an ethical will should be in the author’s own voice and convey the message that is important and meaningful to the author. This effort will undoubtedly take time and thought, and maybe even several iterations over time, but can provide a lasting and meaningful gift to recipients.

When to Deliver an Ethical Will

Just as there is no one right way to create an ethical will, there is no one right time to deliver it. Despite the word “will,” bequeathing an ethical will is not limited to the author’s time of death. While ethical wills are certainly bestowed at an author’s passing (and, if so provided, should be kept with the author’s estate documents to ensure delivery), they can be quite powerful and meaningful when provided during the author’s lifetime. In many instances, ethical wills are given at significant life events such as graduation, marriage or the birth of a child. An author might even add to an ethical will over time and deliver it in stages. Whenever an ethical will is delivered, however, it is certain to be a cherished gift and lasting legacy.

If you are interested in learning more about ethical wills, please let us know. We would be happy to discuss them in more detail.

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