Ethical Wills – Love Letters to Your Family

Family and Kids

Post written by Home and Family columnist Beth LaMie.

An Ethical Will is a simple way to share what is important to you with your family and friends. In fact, it can be a legacy of love and a spiritual gift for your loved ones to remember you by. Many people think about writing an Ethical Will when they are nearing the end of their life. In reality, such wills should ideally be an ongoing practice.
Think about what you wish you knew about your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors. For example, why did they uproot their lives to emigrate from one country to another, such as the original Pilgrims; or from one area of a country to another, such as the pioneers who endured hardships to settle the West in the United States? What personal experiences had the greatest impact on their lives? Those are the types of things about yourself that you can share with your own descendants and friends.
If you knew ahead of time when your life was going to end, what words of wisdom and comfort would you want to leave for your family?
You may have a Last Will and Testament for the legal allocation of your accumulated possessions, as well as a Living Will with instructions for handling medical concerns, but an Ethical Will gives your family a better understanding of who you are, what is important to you, and what you hope to pass on to them.
Consider starting an Ethical Will as soon as possible, regardless of your age.
Update it regularly after, or in preparation for, major milestones, such as graduations, marriage and divorce, births and deaths, personal achievements and disasters. Reviewing each version can show how much you have changed and grown over the years.
One of the most rewarding writing workshops I’ve done was for a group of high school seniors at an inner city school in Dublin, Ireland.
When we talked about Personal Values, they readily opened up about what was important to them, how they had learned them, and from whom. Some students were normally quite reticent about sharing their thoughts or participating in classroom discussions; fortunately, this topic struck a chord with them and helped them open up.
There are no hard and fast rules for the content of an Ethical Will, but usually they consist of some or all of the following elements:

  1. Greetings
  2. Your History – Past & Present
  3. Personal Values
  4. Lessons from Life Experiences
  5. Hopes for the Future
  6. Final Thoughts

The specific format of your Ethical Will is insignificant compared to the priceless legacy you leave. Whether you choose to write it or record it electronically, you have several options.

  1. The oldest method, used for some 3500 years by the Jewish community, is to write it on paper; now it is easy to enter it into one of many word processors on a computer.
  2. Other options are to create an audio recording, perhaps reading one’s own Ethical Will aloud, or using a camcorder to capture not only the person’s voice, but their image as well.
  3. Artistic people may prefer to take a less traditional path to create an expression of who they are. They may enjoy painting, weaving, writing poetry, scrapbooking, photography, or a vast variety of other media.

Long-term storage is important to consider, regardless of the recording method used. For example:

  1. Electronic data storage is continually evolving. Media used years ago, such as floppy disks or 8-track tapes, have not only deteriorated, they cannot easily be heard now due to the rarity of equipment. Here is an interesting website that lists all the retro medias that
    have become obsolete, courtesy of the University At Buffalo Libraries.
  2. Photographs and papers can last over 100 years, depending on storage. Hard drives last 5-8 years at best. If you write or print your Ethical Will, make certain you use archival paper; in addition, store it in a safe place away from heat, light, and humidity.
  3. Keep a copy of your Ethical Will at home as a personal reminder of who you are and what you have accomplished. It can be uplifting on those days when you need a little lift.

When to share your Ethical Will with your family and friends is another consideration.

  1. Ideally, the sooner an Ethical Will is shared with loved ones, the better. Doing so can be an excellent opportunity to grow closer to the people who matter most. It can also establish a line of communication that might otherwise not be possible.
  2. Many people prefer to save their Ethical Will until after they have passed away. They may choose to have it read at their wake, funeral, or memorial service. In this case, it is especially important that the Ethical Will be given to a specific person who is charged with its dissemination at a designated time.
  3. Review your Ethical Will regularly, such as every five years. Think of it as a work in progress, rather than a one-time occurrence. It is interesting to see how your values and advice for others may have changed over the years.

There are many excellent sources for more details about writing your Ethical Will, including the Association of Personal Historians and Barry Baines, M.D..
In addition, we will discuss in a future column how to get started on your own Ethical Will.
Have you considered writing an Ethical Will? If so, what are your thoughts and concerns about them? We love to get you input and feedback!

(photo source)