What is an ethical will?
The other day, my new writer friend Rabbi Rami asked me if I knew what an “ethical will” was. “Nope,” I said, “not a clue!”
Turns out, an ethical will, also called a “legacy letter,” is quite different from the legal document we imagine when we think of a last will and testament. While what’s called a “simple will” indicates our wishes for the distribution of our possessions after death, an ethical will gives us an opportunity to pass on to future generations what we’ve learned through our experiences—our most profound lessons, values, and perspectives.
In addition, according to Next Avenue’s Deborah Quilter, ethical wills quite often include blessings for those who outlive us (particularly our children), our “hopes for the future, apologies to those [we] fear [we] have hurt, or gratitude to those [we] think [we] have not thanked enough.”
In a way, you might see an ethical will as a mini-memoir—one that gets right to the point: I did this; I learned this; I want to share this. And like any other memoir, there’s no need to wait until we are at the end of our lives to write it. In fact, in his article “Why Write an Ethical Will?” Dr. Andrew Weil says, the “main importance [of an ethical will] is what it gives the writer in the midst of life.”
WRITING YOUR ETHICAL WILL
We’re living in troubling times. Taking a few hours to create such a deep life inventory could help us remember what’s most important to us. We might focus our ethical-will writing on recognizing the positive impact we’ve had on others, or on the gifts that have been given to us by others. We can name for ourselves our true values: what’s most important to us; the influence we would like to have; the legacy we would like to leave.
On the other hand, this might be a months- or years-long process, a document we begin now and add to as our lives and understanding unfold—continuing to write “… in times of reflection,” as mentioned on Everplans, “whether in moments of happiness or hardship.”
10 questions to help you write your ethical will
1) List ten turning points in your life. What decisions did you make at those crossroads that impacted your future?
2) List the three most difficult challenges you’ve faced. What did you learn from each?
3) What sacrifices have you made? Were these for others? Or have you also sacrificed pleasures of the moment for longer term goals?
4) What had you hoped to have accomplished by this point? What have you actually accomplished? Which accomplishment gives you most satisfaction?
5) Which five people have had the most significant influence on you?
6) If you had the opportunity to give three pieces of advice to the world at large, what would they be?
7) What roles have you played in your family? At work? In your community?
8) What do you love to do most? List up to 100 items.
9) Have you had what you’d consider spiritual experiences? If so, write about one or more of them. If not, how have you been guided so far in your life?
10) What would you want to see as your legacy?
WRITING ETHICAL WILLS WITH YOUR FAMILY
No matter how young we are, we have learned something from the time we’ve lived. Rather than embarking on your ethical will alone, you might create a family event—just you and your children gathered at a table responding to questions like the ones above, or several generations sharing the experience via video call.
You might all agree to respond to a single question, then write together for perhaps ten minutes, before sharing what you’ve written. If time permits, repeat the process. This could become a family tradition—a weekly or monthly opportunity to dig into deep topics and learn what your loved ones think about the things that matter most.
Some folks have published their ethical wills. Here are a few examples:
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