A LOVE LET­TER TO YOUR HEIRS

BE SURE NOT TO DIE WITH­OUT HAV­ING WRIT­TEN

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Robert Pow­ell Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Pow­ell is edi­tor of Re­tire­ment Weekly and con­trib­utes reg­u­larly to USA TO­DAY, “The Wall Street Jour­nal” and Mar­ketWatch. Email Bob at rpow­ell@allth­ingsre­tire­ment.com.

Many a per­son dies with­out hav­ing left be­hind a doc­u­ment to their heirs that sums up their life, that pro­vides their heirs with a sense of who they re­ally were, what they re­ally stood for and what their val­ues were. But that’s chang­ing. In­creas­ingly, ex­perts are help­ing older Amer­i­cans put pen to pa­per (or fin­ger to key­board) and write some­thing called an eth­i­cal will, which is quite dif­fer­ent from a stan­dard-is­sue will peo­ple use to pass as­sets to heirs and loved ones. We asked Su­san Turn­bull, a prin­ci­pal with Per­sonal Legacy Ad­vi­sors and au­thor of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Cre­at­ing Your Eth­i­cal Will, to help read­ers bet­ter un­der­stand this thing called an eth­i­cal will.

QWHAT IS AN ETH­I­CAL WILL? A: The short an­swer is it’s a love let­ter to your heirs. The long an­swer is an 800-year-old tra­di­tion of cre­at­ing a let­ter to your loved ones, set­ting down ev­i­dence of what was im­por­tant to you.

Q WHO MIGHT WANT TO CRE­ATE ONE?

A: A per­son who un­der­stands that the most valu­able things they have to give are not ma­te­rial. One who wants to share some of their life story in a way that is help­ful and en­dur­ing but doesn’t want to com­mit to writ­ing an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy or me­moir.

Q WHAT IS THE HIS­TORY OF THE ETH­I­CAL WILL?

A: What had al­ways been an oral tra­di­tion was first for­mal­ized into a writ­ten one in the 12th cen­tury, when Jewish fathers be­gan writ­ing their sons let­ters of in­struc­tion about what it meant to live a wor­thy and eth­i­cal life. Th­ese came to be known as eth­i­cal wills. The value of this lov­ing cus­tom res­onates to­day with peo­ple of all ages and tra­di­tions.

Q WHAT IS THE RE­LA­TION­SHIP OF AN ETH­I­CAL WILL AND A LE­GAL WILL?

A: An eth­i­cal will is strictly per­sonal. It has no le­gal weight but as a com­po­nent of an es­tate plan can be a in­stru­ment for re­al­iz­ing the broad­est def­i­ni­tion of legacy.

Q WHAT COULD YOU IN­CLUDE IN AN ETH­I­CAL WILL?

A: There is no such thing as a stan­dard eth­i­cal will. What they have in com­mon is that each au­thor has con­sid­ered what they want their au­di­ence to know with­out ques­tion and com­mit­ted to putting it down in an en­dur­ing fash­ion. It might be an ex­pres­sion of love and grat­i­tude or on life ex­pe­ri­ences that re­flect core val­ues and lessons learned. It can be a place to pre­serve in­for­ma­tion or fam­ily sto­ries. Eth­i­cal wills are an ex­cel­lent place to pro­vide ex­pla­na­tions of de­ci­sions be­hind an es­tate plan or char­i­ta­ble be­quest or as a place to doc­u­ment the story be­hind the money. Some take the form of lists of snip­pets of wis­dom or in one case a list of fa­vorite movies. Watch th­ese, its au­thor said, and you will un­der­stand me.

Q WHAT SHOULD YOU EX­CLUDE?

A: Lan­guage that is crit­i­cal, neg­a­tive or con­trol­ling. Eth­i­cal wills were meant to be help­ful, pos­i­tive, lov­ing and wise.

Q WHAT ARE THE STEPS IN CRE­AT­ING AN ETH­I­CAL WILL?

A: Con­sider your au­di­ence and your pri­mary in­ten­tion in or­der to find a fo­cus. Eth­i­cal wills are usu­ally short, be­tween 1-20 pages. Start by writ­ing some­thing that will come eas­ily to you; for many this is find­ing words to say thank you. Most im­por­tantly, be your­self. The most time­less mes­sages are often the sim­plest and most straight­for­ward. It is good to think of an eth­i­cal will as a work in progress, just as you are. Date and sign what you are work­ing on, make sure it can be found and feel free to add to it or change it as time and in­spi­ra­tion al­low.

Q MIGHT AN ETH­I­CAL WILL BE SHARED DUR­ING LIFE?

A: Yes. Eth­i­cal wills are mono­logues but can be even more pow­er­ful when they are cat­a­lysts for di­a­logues built on the foun­da­tion of what was ex­pressed in the eth­i­cal will, which are often re­flec­tions dif­fi­cult to fully ar­tic­u­late face to face.

Q WHAT SUR­PRISES PEO­PLE WHO CRE­ATE AN ETH­I­CAL WILL?

A: How re­ward­ing and af­firm­ing a process it is, ground­ing them as it does in what brings mean­ing to their lives. It feels re­ally good.

GETTY IMAGES/ ISTOCKPHOTO

Su­san Turn­bull says the im­pulse to pass on val­ues, sto­ries, wis­dom and knowl­edge is as old as the hu­man race.

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