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D. The Ethical Will

D. The Ethical Will

The ethical will is not a legal document at all, but it can be your spiritual legacy. It is a way to express and pass on your love, values and beliefs, the lessons life has taught you and your hopes for the future.

There is no prescribed format for an ethical will. Most commonly today, people write an ethical will simply as a letter to their loved ones, expressing what they would like their survivors to know – not to have – after they are gone. (Many people, however, are writing ethical wills at significant points in their lives, and sharing them while still alive.) Some people prefer to videotape a presentation along the lines of an ethical will, and creative services have even popped up that can help folks do this.

Don’t be confused by the word “will” in “ethical will.” It is worth emphasizing: The ethical will is not a legally-binding document. It has nothing to do with worldly property. But it can be a priceless gift to others and provide great reward for the maker, as well, in the form of comfort and peace of mind. The ethical will can be an affirmation and reminder of shared family values. It can be a way to reach out to estranged family members, and maybe begin to heal emotional wounds.

Although an ethical will by design contains a lot of personal history, it is not meant to be a lengthy autobiography. Rather, it’s a way to get to the “bottom line” – to impart to loved ones some of the wisdom acquired from your life experiences. You can share inspirational stories that might otherwise disappear from the family memory.

The ethical will can also explain estate planning decisions set forth in the formal, legally binding will and/or trust documents that might not be understood – e.g., why the children’s inheritance is being held in trust till age thirty-five; why certain lifetime gifts were made to one child and not another; why somebody is getting more than somebody else. Very little of this kind of explanation is ordinarily found in formal estate planning instruments. These documents tend to be long and confusing enough as it is, without much room for extra verbiage.

That might be why – for now – neither lawyers nor the public are as familiar with the ethical will as might be expected. The expressions of the ethical will are not legal in nature, so they have not traditionally been included in the formal estate planning process. But that is the logical time for a person to consider this simple tool for leaving a legacy, and attorneys are being awakened to that fact.

One of the people doing the awakening is a physician – Barry Baines, MD. This might seem ironic till you learn that Dr. Baines is a former hospice medical director. Caring for a dying man several years ago, Baines suggested writing an ethical will as a means of alleviating the man’s suffering and anxiety over the significance of his life. The compassionate doctor and his team were profoundly moved by the immediate relief and peace their patient experienced upon completing his document. The man was rich in experience, and realized that his writing had indeed left something of value to the world.

Baines became an advocate of the ethical will from that point on. He maintains a website with information and suggestions on drafting an ethical will ( Even better, you can download software Baines has co-developed to help find the right words to express various sentiments and convey certain widely-held values. They even call it “ValueWare” – because you are asked to pay according to the software’s value to you, and what you can afford.

Often, the hardest part is just getting started. That’s why the ethical will writing guide is so useful. It can start you off with a line or two about several things you’d like to share. The text appears on the computer screen and is inserted into a document that can be edited and printed the way you would any other.

For example, there is a category of thoughts regarding the importance of family. Here’s one many of us would find appropriate: “As I’ve grown older I continue to value the family more and more.” From there, you can add your own thoughts or move to another topic, like “the importance of honesty,” or “learning from mistakes.” Just seeing something in front of you will probably bring to mind your own anecdotes and lessons learned. Even if you don’t consider yourself good with words, this exercise can produce something your survivors will always cherish.

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