Dec 10, 2022

The What, Why, and How of Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters

My clients that have received ethical wills, or legacy letters, from their family consider them to be their most valuable possession.  Seriously.  I’ve seen them and they’re some sweet, some rambling and incoherent, but all are cherished.  I’ve attempted to write a few of my own (with varying degrees of success).  But with our Shelter In Place coming to a close, this might be a great time to write one or two before we return to our busy and tired selves.

What is an Ethical Will?

An ethical will is a personal letter that you draft as an aspirational distribution to your family or heirs.  It can be hoity-toity or it can be casual.  It’s really the opportunity to pass on “more than your money,” to your children; those lessons learned, so to speak.  (I’m looking at you Allan Silva).  You can communicate your values, knowledge, experience, and life lessons to your family and heirs. It’s typically included as part of your estate and given out after your passing.

Unlike a legal will, an ethical will is not a legally binding document. I prefer to call it a “legacy letter” as I think it’s more reflective of the conversational nature of the document.

Writing a legacy letter can be quite cathartic.  The first time I attempted it, I was given the sentence stem, “On the day you were born…” as a means of writing one to my son.  I’ve taken three stabs at that one and they’re all so different.  The first attempt was quite a transactional accounting of the evening; the second, emotional; and the third, started sounding like an apology for being a bad dad.  (I got rid of that one).  But you can start yours off with something about powerful life lessons, poignant experiences, morals and values, religious beliefs, political ideologies, predictions about the future, gratitude and thanks, regrets from the past, and even apologies. 

On the receiving end, an ethical will or legacy letter is something that your heirs can remember you by. It reinforces who your closest loved ones already knew you were and gives others – like very young grandchildren and future descendants – an opportunity to read your own words and learn about who you were.

Why You Want an Ethical Will

You don’t need some magical history with mountaintop experiences, lurid tales, and profound enlightenment to tell your story. Whether you’re 45 and have spent your entire career working as an accountant in a small town, or you’re 95 and have traveled the world, fought in wars, and forged an illustrious career that spanned multiple decades, you have your own story to tell.  More importantly, you have your own values and lessons to pass along.

An ethical will ensures you have some say in how you’ll be remembered. It helps you feel as if your life’s experiences have meant something.  If you’re someone who has a knack for keeping things close to the vest and doesn’t share a lot of intimate details with people around you, you’ll find it easier to express these thoughts and ideas in a letter format. The process can be less emotional (as you don’t have to worry about how others are receiving the information) and allows for greater transparency and thoroughness.

What Do You Include in an Ethical Will?

Just as each person is different, no two ethical wills or legacy letters are the same. You can follow any format, structure, or rules that you’d like. However, there are some common approaches that tend to work well. You may want to include some of the following in your own:

  • My hopes. I think it best to start with something that doesn’t sound like a memoir.  Your loved ones and heirs want to hear from your heart, not your memories.  So start with things like:  My wishes for you are…. The World I want to give you is….  I hope someday you will try….
  • My sweeter memories of You:  Who doesn’t like reading of themselves (positively) through a loved one’s lens??  So how about:  One really special thing about you is…. On the day you were born (an oldie but goodie), I laugh when you…, . 
  • My story.  If you get stuck, go with what you know but don’t drop into memoir (yet):  What I want you to know about me…., What I valued most from my parents…..  Maybe dive into: where were you born? What was your childhood like? Who were your friends growing up? What was school like? When did you meet your spouse? What careers/jobs did you have? Where have you traveled?
  • My family (that your loved ones likely didn’t meet). Time machine letters are cool.  They’re like those old sepia photos in that they’re a unique window into a world never to return.  So, What details do you remember from your early family life? What are the most important things you learned from your parents/grandparents? What family traditions did you have growing up? What are some favorite stories you have about your family?
  • My beliefs. This is the stuff that’s savored.  What are your strongest beliefs? What do you believe about God? What are your religious convictions? What are your political convictions? Which values are most important to you? What does success look like?
  • My items of interest. Do you have favorite recipes? Are there scripture verses or poetry that you adore? Are there letters or essays that you believe your loved ones should read? Do you have any memorabilia or artifacts that you want to pass along?

While it’s a good idea to have a physical printed copy of your ethical will, you can also include things like audio recordings, pictures, videos, and other digital documents.  Extra credit for multimedia, but remember that if it’s not easy to store, then it might not be easy to see.

How to Draft an Ethical Will

The best approach is to write your own ethical will. This is the surest way to get your thoughts across. It doesn’t matter if you’re a skilled writer or not. Part of the appeal of an ethical letter is that it’s your voice shining through.

If you’re unsure of where to start, you can always find templates and guided worksheets online. These tools speed up the process and help you make more efficient use of your time.  Or call me.  I’m happy to talk you through your first.

Is Your Estate Plan Solidified?

While an ethical will is important, it’s not a legally binding letter or document. It’s just one part of your larger estate plan. If you still have questions or soft spots in your estate plan, contact estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg. I’ll be happy to assist you in clarifying and preserving your legacy.

Tags: WillsTips