Each person accumulates a wealth of knowledge, experiences, and values throughout the course of their life. Regardless of whether you are financially wealthy, you have a great deal to share with your loved ones. An ethical will, sometimes also called a legacy letter, is a great way to pass on the wisdom that you have acquired and can be one of the most meaningful parts of your estate plan.
What Is an Ethical Will?
When we think about a will, we typically mean a “last will and testament,” the legally binding document that is used to pass on our property and money when we die. Because it is called a “will,” some may think that an ethical will is a legal document. In reality, it is not a legally binding document at all. Rather, it is simply a letter—or even a video recording—in which you can communicate any important values, sentiments, or life lessons that you think will be of benefit to your loved ones. The content of an ethical will is likely to vary widely from individual to individual because each one of us is unique and has had distinct life experiences that have helped mold us into who we are now.
What Might It Include?
Although each individual will have different goals for their ethical will, here are some ideas to help you think about what you might include:
- Expressions of love for your family
- Religious beliefs and truths you would like to impart to your loved ones
- Life lessons learned during difficult circumstances
- Apologies for times in your life when you feel you might have hurt others
- Stories and traditions that you would like preserved for future generations
- Explanation of why your property and money are divided up in a certain way
- Revelation of a family secret
- Blessings or hopes for your children or loved ones
- Gratitude to God or to certain people
What It Probably Shouldn’t Include
Debbie Mycroft, author of the book Memories Worth Telling, advises people not to include judgments or criticism, but instead to leave a sweet legacy of loving words for your family. As you write your ethical will, think about the impact it is likely to have and how you would like to be remembered when you are gone. Most people do not want to leave behind hurtful words and bad feelings for their family members and would much rather be remembered in a positive and loving way.
How to Write an Ethical Will
You do not need to be an accomplished author to write your ethical will. The purpose is not to impress your family or loved ones with your polished writing skills, but rather to convey the thoughts that you want to communicate to them as part of your legacy. We can provide you with guidance about how to write it, or if you prefer, it can be produced as an audio or video recording.
In addition, keep in mind that your ethical will does not need to be written in one sitting. Rather, you can add to it or revise it over time—perhaps even over the course of many years. If you start writing your ethical will as a younger person, it is likely that there will be much more to share as you grow older.
When Should It Be Shared?
Typically, people think of a will as a document that should be read after someone has died. Although the decision about when to share an ethical will is up to each individual, you may choose to provide a copy to your family members or loved ones during your lifetime. Even if you later make changes to your ethical will, it is easier for some people to convey deep feelings or difficult-to-express thoughts in writing. If it contains information or thoughts that you would like to discuss with your family, feel free to give it to them during your lifetime. It may draw your family closer together and provide opportunities for dialogue about important topics. Alternatively, some people prefer to wait until after they pass away to share their ethical will. The decision about when to share your ethical will is up to you, and it is likely to vary depending upon your goals in writing it.
Where Should It Be Kept?
Your ethical will is an important part of conveying your values, beliefs, and traditions to the next generation. If you decide to share it with your family after you pass away, it should be kept with your legal papers, or its location should be mentioned in your other estate planning documents. We would be happy to retain a copy along with your will, trust, or other related documents.
We Can Help Shape How You Are Remembered
Although your ethical will is an intensely personal document, we would be happy to help you think through what information you would like to leave for your loved ones. As you consider what is most important to you, we can help you create an estate plan that addresses all aspects of the wealth you will pass down and align it with your goals and hopes for your family. Call us today to set up a meeting with our experienced Madison Estate Planning Attorneys to discuss how best to leave your many forms of wealth to your loved ones.