A LOVE LETTER TO YOUR HEIRS
BE SURE NOT TO DIE WITHOUT HAVING WRITTEN
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.
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Susan Turnbull says the impulse to pass on values, stories, wisdom and knowledge is as old as the human race.