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Ethical Wills: A Memory That Keeps on Giving

By Kevin H. Crenshaw, Esquire

“Just keep on living!” My grandfather used to say that phrase whenever I reached a point at which I thought I had seen it all. I remember those words well, but there are so many lessons that he garnered in life and sought to pass on. Yet, he is no longer with us, and over the years I cannot recall them all. Imagine what it would mean to you to have some words of encouragement or wisdom from a loved one that is no longer with you.

In the precarious world that we live in, many people have asked that question and decided to take decisive action in the new option called an “ethical will.” This is not a legal document in and of itself; rather it is a public record of your nonrepresentational wealth. It is a way to concretely pass on those things that may be otherwise inaccessible or even forgotten. In much the same way that parents would like to see that their children are financially provided for in their absence, some are leaving emotional and philosophical provisions as well.

Essentially, an ethical will is what you make it. There is no set format or content guidelines; however, as interest grows, counselors and attorneys are offering guidance for those who would like to prepare such a will. Ethical wills range in size from a few paragraphs to volumes long and can be in multimedia formats. The goal is to capture in the best way possible your philosophies on life, the moral to your story, or specific hopes and ideals that you would like to share with a family member or friend ¬ anything about yourself that you would like to endure.

Recently, I was introduced to this latest trend at an estate planning conference. I was a bit of a skeptic at first. Unsure of what to expect, the name stirred connotations of a document that would be a peculiar blend of law and morals. In addition to the complexity that can arise when those two concepts are combined, I thought what would be the value of such a document to anyone involved in planning for their estate. I learned, however, that there are three main purposes for ethical wills: 1) leaving an intangible legacy, 2) personal satisfaction, and 3) their utility during the estate planning process.

First, bequeathing ideals and personal messages for your loved ones as part of your legacy is not a new concept. However, applying the same kind of concern that you would to physical objects may strike some as odd. Even as it is important to ensure that your material possessions are properly taken care of, you may want to consider the value of your life lessons, beliefs, and experiences. Not only do these things apply to your own life, they can also cross generations, family lines and even cultures. Take for example a father, once a doctor, that revealed in his ethical will his regret in giving up medical research for a more lucrative position as a surgeon. In his words to his son, he left him with this revelation, “There’s no greater compensation than being happy in your work.”

Second, the process of creating an ethical will is personally beneficial, and can be comforting and encouraging to your loved ones. In recent responses to ethical wills, individuals spoke of how cathartic it was to truly reflect on their life and what they had learned or nearly forgotten. It is a time of introspection that focuses on the positive aspects of your experiences. If you are considering preparing an ethical will, there are books, websites, and even counselors to aid the process. For examples of ethical wills, visit the ethical will website at www.ethicalwill.com. Also, Jack Riemer, a rabbi and co-author of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them (Jewish Lights Publishing) offers advice on how to avoid being critical or preachy.

Finally, for all of the pragmatists in the audience, there is a legal utility for ethical wills. Increasingly, attorneys are suggesting that their clients have one made in conjunction with their Last Will and Testament and other end-of-life documents. An ethical will can assist an attorney in executing the affairs of your estate in a manner that is agreeable with your values and interests. It can also be used to support or offer basis for intent in a variety of probate matters such as trust funding and asset distributions. When an attorney has access to your ethical will, they can better personalize your legal matters.

Ethical wills go beyond concepts of either law or morality. They are not just for the religious, nor are they simply for those with extensive estate planning. Consider it as a memory that will live forever.