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Ethical wills can be most valuable bequests
June 1st, 2011
Typical estate planning involves bequeathing wealth and valuables from one generation to the next. Many people, however, view wealth as something more than money and possessions.
Their view is that some of the most valuable items one can pass on cannot be measured financially. Wealth, for them, includes guiding principles, blessings, spiritual beliefs, and family stories.
If this is true for you, consider the benefits of writing an ethical will in addition to a traditional will of inheritance.
Ethical wills have a long and rich oral tradition in Jewish history. They were first described 3,000 years ago in the Hebrew Bible when Jacob addressed his 12 sons on his deathbed (Genesis 48-49). He told them stories, predicted their futures, and imparted his life lessons.
Written ethical wills date back to the 12th century. The custom was to write directions for the religious and secular guidance of children. It is considered, after all, a good deed to instruct children before death.
Writing an ethical will is not for the fainthearted. It takes courage to confront life and one’s mortality.
You should be willing to ask yourself some of these questions: What do I consider the essential truths I have learned in life? What are my convictions, values and important life lessons? What role has religion played in my life? What are my spiritual beliefs? What are my hopes for the future? These are challenging questions that require deep reflection.
Many connote an ethical will with a statement given just before dying. For some, that may be true.
More and more, however, ethical wills are being written and presented when parents or grandparents are still in their prime. They may be written and re-written at various key transitions in the family lifecycle such as marriage, the birth of a child, confirmation, retirement, serious illness, and for bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.
Tie loose ends
Consider the following ethical will found on the Internet, written by a healthy 43-year-old customer service manager. He wrote it for his wife and three children and described it as “an exercise in looking at your life, what your priorities are, what’s important to you.” It is brief, creative, instructive and driven by principle.
“Have integrity. Your yes should mean yes, your no should mean no. Be the person you say you are. When you peel a banana have you ever gotten anything other than a banana? That is what integrity is, being on the inside who you say you are on the outside. It is not always easy but it is always valuable.”
The main ingredient for writing an ethical will is to speak from the heart. As such, anything goes. You do not have to be a professional writer and you are constrained only by the limits of your imagination.
There is one important caution and that is to avoid writing the “grudge from the grave.” If the intent is to guilt or shame someone, then these are issues that need to be worked out elsewhere.
The following abridged ethical will by a 60-year-old nurse and mother of three children is rich with life lessons. She attached it to her Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions. In receiving this, her children have a resource to guide their thinking and behavior for many years to come.
“I have a great life. I have had fun and I see my life as an adventure. Humor ought to be a large part of every person’s day. Every day there is a new mountain to climb. Some adventures are not much fun and do not turn out the way you want them to, but all of them shape who you are. I always make myself try to do new things because I swore never to get complacent and do only what is comfortable.
“In the future I challenge you to always be willing to climb new mountains and greet new adventures. I want to see a future where you are happy, that you make supportive and provocative mates if you marry, attentive parents who challenge any children that come, supportive family to your extended family, and a loyal friend to those you choose to call friends.” (Abridged and reprinted with permission from Dr. Barry Baines, “Ethical Wills: Putting your Values on Paper,” 2002, Perseus Books.)
The basic will is written with specific amounts of money or material assets in mind. There is, however, little or no explanation given for why money is divided up in a certain way or why one adult child is given the succession rights of a family business and another child is not.
An ethical will can be a great benefit in clarifying issues left unsaid in a basic will. It can be the connective thread that ties the loose ends together into a coherent whole. Is there a better gift one can leave loved ones?
Eric L. Weiner, MSW, Ph.D., is a marriage and family therapist practicing in Mequon. He coaches people on how to write ethical wills and facilitates family inheritance planning meetings. He recently self-published a book, “Words from the Heart: A Practical Guide to Writing an Ethical Will.”