Article by R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® EA
An Ethical Will is a non-legal document that can be used to express your values and beliefs to your family. Spiritual and religious beliefs, personal testimony, encouragement, hopes and desires for your family, work ethic, desires for family unity, and guidance and wisdom learned over the course of your lifetimes can all be written down and preserved in the Ethical Will. The Ethical Will is not required to be drafted by an attorney and could simply be a document in your own handwriting. To ensure it is read by those to whom it is addressed, the document should be preserved with your original Last Will and Testament and a copy provided to your attorney. Examples of Ethical Wills can be found at www.celebrationsoflife.net/ethicalwills/examples/.
Historically, the Ethical Will is an ancient document from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The original template originated from Genesis 49:1-33. A dying Jacob gathered his sons to offer them his blessing and to request that they bury him not in Egypt, but instead in Canaan in the cave at Machpelah with his ancestors.
Other Biblical examples of Ethical Wills include Deuteronomy 32:46-47 where Moses instructs the Israelites to be a holy people and teach their children, and Matthew 5 where Jesus blesses His disciples. Early Rabbis urged people to communicate religious values and ethical teachings, and they often communicated these faith and ethical values orally to their children. Later they were written as letters. Eleazar ben Samuel HaLevi of Mainz, Germany, who died in 1357, wrote to and instructed his sons, “Put me in the ground at the right hand of my father…”
The goal of writing an Ethical Will is to link a person to both their family and cultural history, clarify their ethical and spiritual values, and communicate a legacy to future generations; it addresses people’s “universal needs.” (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.) Writing an Ethical Will clarifies identity and focuses life purpose. Writing an Ethical Will addresses people’s needs to belong, to be known, to be remembered, to have one’s life make a difference, to bless and be blessed.
Estate and financial professionals use the Ethical Will as a foundation with clients to articulate the values to inform charitable and personal financial decisions and preparation of the Last Will and Testament.
For Christian parents, the Ethical Will is an excellent opportunity to express to their children and grandchildren the pattern of stewardship, giving and service they have developed in their lifetimes and remind children and grandchildren of the example that has been set for them. In so doing, you can lay the groundwork for trusting your children with your assets and that they will develop their own pattern of stewardship, giving and service informed by your example. You can even come alongside your children and grandchildren and encourage them in giving, stewardship and service, so that when your assets are passed to them, they will have more money with which to be a blessing.
As a beginning point in writing an Ethical Will, you may find our Worksheet to be helpful (click here to download).