Your estate planning is part of your legacy, but your legacy should be more than financial assets, material possessions and legal documents. For more and more people, the final touch to their estate planning is what sometimes is known as an ethical will. I call it a family love letter.
Others have called it a legacy letter, heritage will, family philosophy statement, legacy declaration and similar names.
This isn’t a legal document. Instead, it is a broader statement that could include your values, philosophy, beliefs, goals, wishes, wisdom, or similar sentiments. The content varies from individual to individual. Some people write about life lessons they learned and want to pass on. Others write of their hopes and goals
for loved ones or their appreciation for family members and friends. Some ethical wills focus on comforting thoughts or philosophical or religious beliefs. You might think of it as similar to an address by a commencement speaker. For some people, it is a chance to preserve or improve family harmony or to simply pass on family history and traditions.
The ethical will is not the instruction letter that I also recommend. That letter, which is best as part of a notebook of documents, is used to explain key parts of the estate planning and how to handle certain assets and issues. You can find details about how to put this together in my report, To My Heirs: A Book of Wishes and Instructions, which is available through the web site on the Bob’s Library page.
The ethical will springs from Jewish tradition. There are examples of ethical wills in the Old Testament (Genesis Chapter 49; 1 Kings Chapter 2) and other Hebrew literature.
Usually it is addressed to the immediate family, but some people have written ethical wills to be read at their funerals or memorial services. The document is meant to be uplifting, philosophical, instructional and, at times, humorous.
The bottom line of an ethical will is to make sure your children or other loved ones know what really mattered to you or what you wanted for them. Often, discussions about these matters never occur in families or get lost among the other discussions and activities of busy lives.
An ethical will can be as simple or elaborate as you like. A father might encourage his children to visit and call their mother regularly and look after her needs. Or a parent might explain why extra attention or resources were directed at the needs of one of the siblings and encourage the others to continue that practice. Some ethical wills encourage youngsters to continue in the parents’ faith and raise their children in that faith.
You can develop different documents, each addressed to a different person. Typically, the ethical will is a separate document. But it can be incorporated into or even be the regular will.
An ethical will gives you a chance at a little bit of immortality. You might be remembered for what is actually important to you instead of the random memories of others. Some estate planning spacialists mention ethical wills as part of their process while others leave it to the client to decide about it and develop it.