When we pass from this life, we will each leave a legacy. Regardless of our preparation—or lack thereof—for the end of life, we will indisputably leave something behind. That legacy will be both tangible and intangible.
Most of us know that the purpose of a will or living trust is to pass on the material things we want people to have. However, few of us have ever given much thought to how we wish to pass on our knowledge and beliefs.
That is where an old medieval tradition, something once called an ethical will, is gaining new ground. In those days, an ethical will passed on to descendants wisdom on how to live a life worth living.
According to Susan Turnbull, author of The Wealth Of Your Life; A Step-By-Step Guide For Creating Your Ethical Will, today’s ethical will can address a number of themes. These include your history, values, perspective, feelings, and explanation of your estate plan. An ethical will can address one or any combination of these topics.
I recently took a workshop from Susan on writing an ethical will. When I entered the room, the first thing I noticed were the boxes of tissues on the tables—one for every three participants. I heard one planner tell another, “They may be a little short on tissues, I’ve heard you really need your own box to make it through this workshop.” I quickly sensed this was not going to be the standard lecture on estate planning.
After a short presentation on the basics, Susan reminded us to write a couple of pages, not a book. She then sent us to scatter about the hotel’s beautiful courtyard and begin writing our ethical wills. Our first job was to decide to whom we would address our wills. The most obvious recipients are children, but others might include spouses, partners, parents, grandchildren, unborn descendents, siblings, nieces, nephews, friends, and guardians.
I quickly selected my children, London and Davin. So far, nary a tissue needed.
The next step was to be clear on the reason why we were writing an ethical will and to compose our first line. About this time I started hearing sniffling from a few of the folks around me. I began, “First, I want to tell you how much I loved you. Indeed, I loved you to Pluto and back!” Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but I did have a quick flash of the sniffles myself. It quickly subsided; still no tissue needed.
Next, we were to express to the recipients our feelings for them, our love and hopes for their lives.
Give me a tissue; no, make that two!
At the end of the day we gathered to process our experience. Most of us had accomplished what we came to do, and those who didn’t had made a significant start. None of us left untouched or unmoved by the experience. Susan reminded us that an ethical will is a work in progress, to be modified and updated as time passes.
At one point in the day I thought, “I’m paying good money to sit here and write. I could have done that at home for nothing!” True, but without the commitment of time and money to attend the workshop, my own ethical will would still be on my “to do” list.
An ethical will is a chance to put into words some of our deepest beliefs and values. Even more important, it allows us to let our loved ones know what they mean to us. As one participant put it at the end of the day, “Now I can die!”