An Ethical Will (Hebrew: zava'ah) is a document that passes ethical values from one generation to the next.
Rabbis and Jewish laypeople have continued to write Ethical Wills during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Riemer)
In recent years, the practice has been more widely used by the general public.
In BusinessWeek magazine and in an American Bar Association electronic newsletter it is described as an aid to Estate Planning; (Murphy; Friedman) in health care and hospice (Baines; Freed) and as a spiritual healing tool. (Weil; Freed).
Ethical Wills (also known as a Legacy Letter) are written by both men and women of every age, ethnicity, faith tradition, economic circumstance & educational level.
📘 The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours by Marion Wright Edelman,
📘 Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother, and
📘 President Barack Obama's Legacy Letter to his daughters of January 18, 2009.
The concept of the ancient traditional Ethical Will was to "transmit love, learning & ethical instructions to future generations".
The Ethical Will is a tool for spiritual healing in religious communities and in the care of seniors, the ailing and the dying.
Estate and financial professionals use the Ethical Will to help clients articulate values to inform charitable and personal financial decisions + preparation of their last will and testament.
The Ethical Will is not a legal document.
Modern heirs may resist being "controlled from the grave" & more readily accept explicitly spiritual blessings from elders.
It could be a letter—ranging from half a page to a bound book—or a video recording.
There are no rules governing what goes into an Ethical Will / Legacy Letter, or when the contents should be shared with the heirs, but the idea behind it is simple: Convey values, not valuables.
Deeply rooted in western religions, the practice of writing Ethical Wills has re-emerged as a way of leaving behind something more meaningful than material goods.
Susan Turnbull, founder and principal of Personal Legacy Advisors, a firm that advocates non-binding personal-legacy documents as a component of estate and philanthropic planning says:
"What struck me was that it was the missing piece of estate planning …
A Will is written in formal legalese that is very limited in scope.
It has no personality, and there is no life or warmth in it.
Love and affection and gratitude may be implied by the document, but are never stated.
An Ethical Will takes a 30,000-foot view of your life, and tries to capture the essence of what has been important to you, and the lasting messages you want to leave.
The Ethical Will is written to help other people, for the benefit of the heirs, but the process the author goes through to create it is as valuable as the document itself.
The author has the opportunity to pause and reflect on her/his life in ways she/he might otherwise never do."
Linda Beerman, Chief Fiduciary & Risk Officer at Atlantic Trust, a private wealth-management firm, and manager of its wealth strategies group, says:
"Ethical Wills are an important part of helping prepare the next generation to become "good stewards" of the family wealth.
Typically these are private expressions of love, of what the owner of the wealth wants it to mean for the next generations.
It's an effort to pass down not just the money, but all of the drivers [of the] creator of the wealth, and what he or she wishes the legacy to be for the family.
The Ethical Will is a great way to tie it all together.
It answers the question: What is this all for?
With nearly every family there is a deeply emotional personal story behind the accumulation of the wealth."
🧩 Family history + Cultural & Spiritual Values;
🧩 Blessings & Expressions of Love for, Pride in, Hopes & Dreams for Children and Grandchildren;
🧩 Life-Lessons + Wisdom of Life Experience;
🧩 Requests for Forgiveness for Regretted Actions;
🧩 The Rationale for Philanthropic + Personal Financial Decisions;
🧩 Stories about Meaningful Objects for Heirs to Receive;
🧩 Clarification about and Personalisation of Advance Health Directives; and
🧩 Requests for Ways to be Remembered after Death.
Susan Turnbull, offers the following tips:
If you were not here tomorrow, what is the most important thing you would not want left unsaid?
It might be a simple as saying, "thank you" in your own words.
Write it down – you've begun.
You are not trying to write for the Pulitzer Prize.
What you create is a gift of yourself, made for those you love, not for an imaginary panel passing judgment on your life or your writing.
What do I want to make sure my loved ones know and have in writing?
What messages, feelings and information do I want to endure beyond my life?
Start small and add to it over time if you wish.
It's natural to expect that what seems most important to share might grow and change as you and your audience age.
The reach of your words is unknowable.
Keep it in an accessible file, so you can add to it effortlessly.
Keep it with your legal papers or refer to where it can be found.
Make sure your words find their intended audience.
Note: Using our Digital Safe Custody Vault will ensure you accomplish these objectives.
Even as you know you may augment or change your document over time, think of the rewards of creating a monologue that will promote dialogue.
This FAQ was created by James D. Ford GAICD | Principal Solicitor, Blue Ocean Law Group℠.
This FAQ is intended for general interest + information only.
It is not legal advice, nor should it be relied upon or used as such.
We recommend you always consult a lawyer for legal advice specifically tailored to your needs & circumstances.