Many years ago, actually about 14 years ago, I received a letter in the mail (yes, an old fashioned, handwritten note). It was from my future brother-in-law. That shouldn’t seem that unusual, but he had passed away two days before I received the letter.
I knew the letter was coming so when it arrived it didn’t feel like some spirit had reached out from the grave. The note was a welcome to the family and expression of a hope for the future. And while the letter didn’t ease the tragic loss it has served over the years as a source of comfort not just for me but for the whole family.
What my brother-in-law had written was, in essence, an ethical will.
The concept of ethical wills is not new– it goes back in time probably for centuries. But its use as a statement to future generations, as a means to express hopes and dreams, as a way to pass on some wisdom and history to the family has become more and more popular.
Ethical wills technically have no force of law. It’s not like a regular will where, if you meet all the requirements under state law, your directions as to the disposition of assets you own will be carried out by your executor. You don’t need a lawyer to write an ethical will, you don’t have to follow strict state rules. You just have to write down, record, video what you have in mind.
There are many resources on line and books that can help you focus on what you might say in an ethical will and how you might say it. There are even businesses that can help you put the whole thing together. But whether you do it yourself or have professional help there are some things to keep in mind:
- Your ethical will shouldn’t be the time for “I told you so” comments. You’re saying goodbye. Share good thoughts and hopes for the family.
- Don’t leave directions that should be incorporated in other legal documents (such as how to dispose of assets or where you want to be buried).
- Do share family history.
Finally, these are thoughts that may be shared with your family for generations – it can be part of your emotional legacy. You don’t have to wait until you are ill, you can write your ethical will, rewrite, and rewrite it again. It’s your final emotional gift to your family.