What is an ethical will?
What are ethical wills? Basically they are a letter, or a document similar in form. Quite focused, often they are only a page or two long, and specifically communicate one’s values, often with the hope that one’s descendents will also hold to those values.
In addition to values, a typical ethical will include the writer’s lessons learned in this life, and ideally — and importantly — will include offers of and requests for forgiveness. They include expressions of love and care and do so with the intention of offering that gift to someone in the next generation, usually, but not always, the writer’s children. Some share their ethical wills with extended family and close friends.
People write ethical wills for many purposes. For example: new parents write ethical wills to communicate to their child’s designated guardian the values they would like instilled in their child if the parents pass away unexpectedly. This sort could be written in the context of general financial planning and Last Will & Testament preparations, and included with those legal documents. (Of course, providing a copy to the child’s guardian is not a bad idea, either!)
A slightly edited version of this ethical will, specifically addressed to the child or children, would be a lovely idea — especially if some words of love and hopes for the child’s future are included in a way that helps the child feel the parents’ care and concern.
Another example: an elderly person with a terminal illness, coming to terms with life and its winding down, and wanting to say some important things to family that may have been especially learned through the illness.
And one more example: a military person about to be deployed overseas to a war zone, with a young family at home, writes an ethical will to be delivered in the unhappy event the soldier does not survive the deployment. Military chaplains can facilitate such efforts, if needed.
There are as many versions of ethical wills as there are people with the heart and soul and the wish to share them.
With a history going back at least to Old Testament times, their use and popularity have waxed and waned over the centuries. Barry K. Baines, MD, in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the person largely credited with the resurgence of interest in ethical wills in this baby boomer generation. He seems initially to have used them in his work with hospice patients and has expanded their use from there.
IN SUMMARY: ethical wills generally are one- or two-page letters in which the writer gives her or his values, and lessons learned in life, for the benefit of the next generation. Including words of forgiveness and love make them especially powerful.
UP NEXT: in the next post we’ll discuss a longer version, or variant, of an ethical will, that we call a Lifespan Legacy letter.