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Ethical Wills: Passing on Values Instead of Valuables

May 15, 2023

Often when we begin a conversation about estate and legacy planning, we start with the basic premise of what (and in what amount) do you want to go to who?

Do you want your home to go to your children? A nest egg to go to your grandchildren? A bequest to an honored charity? Or a gift to a lifelong friend? These are often the things that come up when creating a typical Last Will and Testament.

But what about that story about the moment you realized you wanted to spend the rest of your life with that one special person? Or your grandfather’s recipe for soup which is only known as “soup,” but is understood to be a very particular type of soup? Or the lullaby your mother and her mother sang to you which has no name, but generations of love embedded in it?

These are the things we know and love which can be lost from generation to generation because they are often passed on by word of mouth, but may be lost when time, distance or opportunity interfere.

The tradition of an ethical will or end-of-life letters (known as tzevaot) goes back many years in certain cultural groups but has only entered mainstream conversation regarding legacy planning more recently[i].

This is not something your attorney will necessarily bring up to you, and it is not a formalized document like most estate planning documents. It is not legally binding, and it has no standardized form. It may not even be a document at all.   

With the options available to use today, an ethical will may take many forms. It can be a collection of videos or audio recordings, a scrap book, a journal, a traditional letter or maybe even a combination of the above.

It is a place where you can share some of what you are, of what you have learned and the love you have for the ones who may be left behind.

Simply put - you may pass on your valuables in your Last Will and Testament, but in your Ethical will you pass on your values.

More importantly, this isn’t something that needs to wait till the very end to be done, or after you have passed to be shared. Add texture, create context and build memories into the Will itself by doing it with those you love. Let your grandchildren help you record it or have your child with you to transcribe when you finally put down that family recipe on paper.

So how do you get started? It’s all very well and good to say that’s it’s highly personalized with no set format, but all things must start somewhere. You may already have some ideas, and it’s simply a matter of building up those ideas and turning them into something you can share. Or you may have no idea where to start but have an interest in leaving behind an Ethical Will. Either way, it may help to ask around or do a little research.

There are resources available online and in print which can start you off with some thought-provoking questions or prompts to get the “dialogue” started. Some of them may be related to ethical wills specifically, memory books or even just journalling prompts.

You can start with the basic hard facts like where you went to school, the names of your childhood friends and what your favorite sports and teams were.

From there you can move on through your life experiences and as you go along describe poignant memories or provide context to your decisions. Why did you decide to do (or not do) whatever big move or decision you made? Did something else happen to prompt it? Do you regret it? Or was it the best decision you ever made? Were there lessons to be learned?

These can all lead you to the deeper, more abstract questions of what matters to you. Is it your faith? Your family? A love of travel? A cause near and dear to your heart?

Finally, what do you wish for the future. What do you hope for your spouse or partner? What is something you would like for your children to remember about you? What experience do you hope your grandchildren get to have?

This itself may be your ethical will, or you might want to curate certain parts of it or put it in order of value as opposed to chronology and make a more formalized ethical will. You may even do both.

You may not think your favorite sports team is worth mentioning, but a grandchild who roots for the New York Mets when everyone else in the family supports the New York Yankees may find joy in the fact that you were a Mets fan too.

Your ethical will is your chance to make final apologies, answer the unanswered (and sometimes unasked) questions, to share those stories that just never came up, remind your loved ones what was important to you, and offer comfort to those left behind by reminding them how much you cared.

If you’re interested in building your estate and legacy plan and passing on values and valuables to your loved ones, contact us. We’re here to help!


[i]How to Use Tech to Create an Ethical Will | WIRED