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Ethical Wills – How to Transfer Your Values to Future Generations

Last update on: Dec 14 2020

You have more than the money and property in your estate to leave your loved ones.

More and more people are interested in leaving something more meaningful and intangible as part of their legacies. They want to add a more personal element or statement to their estate plans. Estate planning at its most basic is the process of determining how your wealth and assets should be transferred to the heirs of your choice: your children, grandchildren, friends, families, charitable causes, etc. and then deciding which legal tools and structures to use to best meet your basic estate planning goals.

Estate planning is not simply reducing or eliminating taxes and avoiding probate, it ensures that you are taken care of the rest of your life and that your wealth or knowledge is transferred to the people you want to have it after your passing.

 

When asked, many people say values, or life lessons, are what they’d really like to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

One well established way to do that is to prepare a document known as either a family love letter or an ethical will. This document is not part of your estate plan’s legal documents and isn’t legally binding or enforceable. However, the ethical will usually contains personal and philosophical reflections, and is the perfect touch to leave to your family.

The ethical will often is used to pass one’s personal and family history, wisdom and life lessons to loved ones. It usually 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 not supposed to focus on death or other negative topics. Instead, it is meant to be instructional, philosophical, informative, uplifting and even, at times, humorous.

The ethical will springs from Jewish tradition. Famous examples of ethical wills are in the Old Testament (Genesis 49; 1 Kings 2) and other Hebrew literature.

 

The format of an ethical will, or family love letter, can be whatever you want. Traditionally, they are written,  and usually in the form of a letter. But technology opens the possibilities. You can make an audio or video version. A slide show and a movie are also possibilities. You can use whatever format you are comfortable with, or multiple formats if you want.

Some ethical wills are simple and straightforward. They’re intended to encourage or remind loved ones of one or two things. For example, a simple ethical will is simply a father’s instructions and encouragement for his children to visit and call their mother regularly and look after her needs.

In other cases, a parent might explain why during life special attention was directed to the needs of one of the siblings and encourage the others to continue that practice. Some ethical wills encourage the children to continue in the parents’ faith or other practices and raise their children in the same way.

Sometimes an ethical will is part of the regular will and might even be integrated to the point that there isn’t a clear definition between the legally binding sections and the ethical will portions.

The classic example of the ethical will or family love letter probably was from Jack Kelly, best known as actress Grace Kelly’s father but also a successful contractor. Kelly decided to write the will himself in his own style and integrate instructions about his property with observations about life. Here are a few excerpts:

“I want you all to understand that U.S. Government Bonds are the best investment, even if the return is small… As the years gather you will meet some pretty good salesmen who will try to sell you everything from stock in a copper or gold mine to some patent that they will tell you will bring you millions, but remember that for every dollar made that way, millions have been lost. I have been taken by the same gentry but that was perhaps because I had to learn from experience…

“To Kell, I want to say that if there is anything to this Mendelian theory, you will probably like to bet on a horse or indulge in other forms of gambling…so if you do, never bet what you cannot afford to lose and if you are a loser, don’t plunge to try to recoup. That is wherein the danger lies. There will be another deal, my son, and after that, another one…

“In this document I have given you things, but if I had the choice to give you worldly goods or character, I would give you character. The reason I say this is that with character you will get worldly goods, because character is loyalty, honesty, ability, sportsmanship, and, I hope, a sense of humor.”

I don’t recommend writing your own will in this manner but preparing an ethical will or a family love letter that reflects your personality and philosophy in this way can be a good gift for your loved ones. Remember, however, that it doesn’t have to be in writing.

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. You can find a little more on ethical wills in The Rich Die Richer and You Can Too by William D. Zabel, if you can locate a copy. If you do, keep in mind that much of the estate tax information in the book is out of date.

There are few other important points about how to pass on values.

Values are best passed on through actions. Children and grandchildren observed how you lived and acted over the years and made decisions about your values through their observations. The ethical will should be a way to emphasize points you al-ready demonstrated during your life.

Also, research shows that people like stories and are more likely to learn and be persuaded by stories. Stories about your life or your ancestors’ lives are likely to give the next generation a better understanding of who you are and the values you are trying to pass on.

Stories also give the next generation a tool to continue the learning for the generations after them. For more information about how to pass on values, consider the book The Wealth of Wisdom by Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker (Wiley; 2019).

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