Alpa Patel

Managing Director, Wealth Planning and Advice

An ethical will (sometimes referred to as a legacy letter) is an often overlooked component of a comprehensive estate plan.  

Sometimes life can take abrupt turns and there isn’t time to have the heartfelt conversations about life that there would have been had there been more time. An ethical will can help you share those life lessons, your core values and legacy goals – and anything else that’s important to you. 

While a legal will or a trust is generally drafted by a lawyer, an ethical will is something that you prepare or write yourself and is not a legal document. There is no right or wrong format, style or medium. It can be a writing, an audio recording, video recording, or any other format you are comfortable with. The ethical will is your voice, your place to share some important insight about who you are and what is most important to you. Make it your own and feel free to get creative.

Be prepared, as the ethical will may not be easy to write.  You have to confront yourself, be introspective, and in many respects probably be the most honest you have ever been in your life. This can be challenging because unexpected or surprising emotions may surface. At the same time, the exercise of reflecting and memorializing those reflections and values can be immensely gratifying.  You may even find yourself surprised by what reflections come to mind, and which values you choose to share, and ultimately through this process, you may gain better insight as to what is, in fact, important to you. When done, you will no doubt have a sense of accomplishment. If you don’t have your legal will or trust in place, it can also serve as the foundation for those documents – you don’t have to have the legal documents in place to put together a valuable ethical will. Your values, philosophies and legacy goals that you set forth in your ethical will can be reflected in the “who gets what” documents such as your will and/or trust.

The ethical will should not be confused with a journal or autobiography, but rather, should be at most a few pages of important life lessons to pass to the next generation.

Just as you should with your legal will or trust, write early and edit often.  Your ethical will should evolve as your life evolves. Start by writing down notes or bullet points of things you want to include.  Perhaps it is some family history, beliefs, hopes that you have for your children and future generations, dreams and values. Jot down any unresolved conflicts and use the ethical will to forgive and seek forgiveness from those you may have hurt. Include your gratitude for those you may have neglected to thank as well as those you may not have thanked enough.

Additional questions to reflect on may include (in no particular order):

  • Who are you? How did you become the person you are at the time of writing your ethical will? 
  • What or who shaped your life the most?
  • What blessings do you want to share or express?
  • Most meaningful accomplishment?
  • What are your legacy goals with regard to your wealth or assets you leave behind?
  • Who is your hero? Why?
  • What would you like to be remembered for by your family and/or community?
  • What decision did you make that changed your life?
  • Why did you choose to leave a certain asset or sentimental item to a particular child/heir versus another?
  • Why did you choose a particular child as trustee/executor versus another (this is an important one to address for those who have more than one child to ensure the child not chosen doesn’t feel they were not trusted, which can potentially lead to resentment or hurt feelings)?
  • When you think of your next family gathering (reunion, birthday, holiday, etc.), what is the first word that comes to mind? First emotion you feel when thinking of family? Why? For example if it is joy, discuss what brings about those feelings of joy.
  • What is the one day of your life you would live over and over again?
  • What are some important lessons you have learned during your life that you feel are important to impart?

When writing your ethical will, avoid sounding judgmental, critical or negative. Try not to persuade or burden your loved ones with things you weren’t able to persuade them of during your lifetime. Watch your words and most of all, be gentle with yourself.  

Once complete, you may wish to have someone such as an advisor, counselor or trusted friend read your ethical will. This is to ensure that what you were trying to convey is received in the manner you intended.

Although this is a matter of personal preference and comfort level, you may choose to read your ethical will (or portions of it) to your family during your lifetime. It can be powerful and a very special event for your loved ones to hear some of your reflections, life lessons and legacy goals while you are alive. Additionally, by sharing your ethical will during your lifetime, you are providing your heirs an opportunity and forum to address any questions that may arise and clear up any confusion or potential misunderstandings. As noted earlier, there is no right or wrong in how you prepare or deliver your ethical will. It will simply be enough that you took the time, and emotional energy, to write the most honest love letter of your life. 

If you are lucky enough to be the recipient of such a gift, accept it with humility, gratitude and appreciation. Writing it likely wasn’t easy for the author. Reading or hearing it will likely not be easy for you. Remember that you are “hearing” a very intimate conversation and honest reflection of a loved one’s life, therefore allow yourself to feel what you feel. Importantly, treat it with the grace and reverence that this immortal and loving gift deserves.

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