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The Ethical Will
You know the importance of drawing up a will that dictates how your possessions will be distributed when you die. But you also know that those possessions do not fully – or even predominantly – define who you are. There is an option for people who want to pass on more than CDs and trust funds: an ethical will.
An ethical will is simply a document, or series of documents, explaining your philosophy of life. Its purpose is to pass on wisdom rather than money. It does not take the place of a traditional will; everyone should have a traditional will, no matter what their financial situation.
Although ethical wills are receiving more attention now, they have been around for millennia. The Jewish and Christian traditions find references to ethical wills in the Old and New Testaments. Native Americans tell stories that teach the values and ideals of the community. Other spiritual and ethnic traditions also encourage the handing down of values as part of a legacy.
An ethical will is not a legal document. You don't need a lawyer or witnesses, and you can do and redo it as often as you like. You can present it any way you want: as a written document, as a video or audiotape, as a scrapbook, as a series of letters, as a song or a piece of artwork. The important thing is to communicate to your loved ones about the things you believe are important.
When should you write an ethical will? Whenever you want. You do not need to wait until the end of your life. Some people decide to write down their beliefs at some critical turning point in their life, such as reaching a significant birthday, sending their last child off to college, the birth of a grandchild or retirement. These are the kinds of life events that might cause you to reflect on where you have come – and where you are going. But you can start anytime.
What should you include? Again, whatever you want. You might want to start with a discussion of your spiritual beliefs and ethical values. You might relate stories that illustrate how you came to embrace those beliefs and values, or ways in which those beliefs and values have guided your life. You could talk about your life, and what you think have been your most important accomplishments – the things that you are most proud of. Perhaps some of your life experiences can provide lessons for the people you leave behind.
You might want to leave individual messages to your spouse, children, grandchildren or other family members. Tell them that you love them and encourage them to continue to live lives filled with love and purpose. You might have specific things you want to say, such as asking your children to take care of your spouse or each other. Ultimately, you want your ethical will to be a way of expressing the things you believe in, the ideals that have directed your life, and the values you want to pass on to your heirs.
How do you write an ethical will? You can use any approach that works for you. For example, you might want to come up with a set of questions and then write down your answers. You might want to take a chronological approach, explaining how the events of your life have helped form the person you are. You can structure it as a letter or a narrative. You can put your ethical will on a videotape or an audiotape, if you are more comfortable talking than writing.
There are several books that explain the value of an ethical will and can help guide you through the process. There are also Web sites: ethicalwill.com provides examples as well as some templates to help you get started, and lifebio.com helps you turn your story into a digital "Life Storybook" that you can pass on.
You can update or add to your ethical will whenever you want. Some people create a kind of collection of documents – letters to individuals, general statements of philosophy, remembrances – and continue to add to the collection throughout their lives.
You may also find that your loved ones are not the only people who benefit from your ethical will. Many people find that the process of writing an ethical will helps them bring their values into sharper focus and gives them a deeper understanding of what is truly important to them.