ethical will

A Different Type of Love Letter

Imagine having the undivided attention of someone you love for 30 minutes or an hour. Imagine the opportunity to share something from your heart—something important. Imagine no judgement, no distractions, no television, computer or cell phone to interrupt the flow of thoughts. This is the essence of an ancient form of communication, now called an ethical will. 

An ethical will is an optional component to an estate plan. While estate-planning attorneys rarely discuss ethical wills, they have been in existence for thousands of years. They can be traced back to early Jewish culture and were common in other ancient cultures as well.   

An ethical will is a monologue of anything you would like to communicate to your survivors, such as:

  • A love letter to a spouse
  • Letters to children or grandchildren (you may indicate specific dates to be opened and read)
  • A letter to someone thanking them for their friendship
  • Details of family history
  • History of yourself or significant life events
  • Values you wish to communicate

Sharing values and family stories can be difficult, especially with adult children. I’ve noticed there just never seems to be the right time to talk about touchy subjects—such as money values, religion, family values, politics, and other beliefs. These subjects are considered taboo for a reason. They are difficult to communicate in a conversation without triggering a defensive response. This gives you a chance to clearly articulate why, how, or to what extent you may feel the way you do.

The beauty of an ethical will is that it is a one-sided conversation – no interruptions! You can clearly explain the details of why you hold certain beliefs and how your thinking may have evolved over time.

I recommend putting your ethical will(s) with your other estate documents. The form of an ethical will may vary. The most common is hand-written or typed on a computer. These documents need to be easy for your executor to find.

How to get started

The best way to start an ethical will is to begin with something simple. Years ago, my first attempt was only one paragraph. Since then, I’ve re-written it several times, and it is much longer now. In the future I’ll write directly to my younger grandchildren as their personalities develop and I feel even more connected with them.

Since no one (yet) knows it exists, you can re-write and re-do it multiple times. I have typically used Valentine’s Day as the annual deadline to review the current version of my ethical will, to see if it still conveys the message that I want passed on. With the current hot topics of racism, environmental concerns, political upheavals and other world events, I decided it needed a bit of updating this year.

A different type of love letter

Since Valentine’s Day is about a week away, I thought I would share this idea and hope that others consider this very different type of love letter. In fact, while writing out your ethical will, you may decide you want to start sharing things with your family now. That is the beauty of an Ethical Will: it provides clarity of thought. Things may surface that you want to articulate now with those you love, not after you have passed.

So, while it is nice to bequeath money and possessions, an ethical will provides a different type of legacy: A piece of your heart.

Kristina Bolhouse CPA/PFS, CFP®
Vice President/Shareholder

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