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How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning

Last update on: May 10 2021
Estate Planning

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 in their estate planning is what sometimes is known as an ethical will.

Others have called it a legacy letter, heritage will, family philosophy statement, legacy declaration and similar names. (I call it a family love letter.)

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Share Wisdom

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.

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Give Comfort

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 estate planning and how to handle certain assets and issues.

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Immediate Family

Usually an ethical will is addressed to the immediate family, but some people have written these wills to be read at their funerals or memorial services.

The document is meant to be uplifting, philosophical, instructional and, at times, humorous.

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning in the Spirit of ‘Jacob’

 

The ethical will springs from Jewish tradition. In the Bible, there are some unwritten ethical wills. Jacob on his deathbed gathered his sons around him. He described the qualities of most of them and told each what life held for him and his children. (Genesis, Chapter 49) You probably cannot predict the future as precisely as Jacob did, but you can give the children some life lessons.

David met with Solomon to impart detailed instructions about how Solomon should live. He began with broad philosophical issues: So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires. Then, he moved on to very specific instructions about how Solomon should deal with certain individuals. (1 Kings, Chapter Two)

There are other examples of ethical wills in Hebrew literature outside the Bible.

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Help Loved Ones

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.

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Give Counsel

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 towards 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.

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Help Each Child

 

You can develop different documents, each addressed to a specific 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

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Make Final Words Immortal.

You might be remembered for what is actually important to you instead of the random memories of others.

The classic example of an ethical will that was incorporated into the final will and testament probably was 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. Consider 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.’

How to Write an Ethical Will for Your Estate Planning to Show Character

 

“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.”

The document goes on at some length in that vein, and it does get around to explaining how all of Mr. Kelly’s property would be distributed. I don’t recommend writing your own will in this manner, but writing an ethical will that reflects your personality and philosophy can be a good gift for your loved ones.

Some estate planning professionals mention ethical wills as part of their process… while others leave it to the client to decide about it and develop it.

For more in-depth research on the subject, click here to get my special Retirement Watch report: To My Heirs: A Book of Wishes & Instructions.

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