When considering your legacy and future of your family, you likely think of it in terms of trusts, asset management and powers of attorney. While it’s vital to direct where your physical possessions will go and who can make decisions on your behalf, there can be more to it. An ethical will goes a step beyond traditional wills to include more personal details and is an excellent complement to any estate plan.
Evolution of Ethics: The History Behind Ethical Wills
If you were raised with religion, an ethical will may sound familiar since its origins lie within Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Bible, Jacob gathers his children around his bedside to tell them how they should live after he passes, as well as where he should be buried. Moses makes a farewell address before he dies, including instructions to his people.
Before he goes to his eternal rest, David prepares Solomon by passing along warnings for when he becomes king, and by asking him to complete the task he had begun but could not complete. Additionally, the Talmud, the Apocrypha, and both medieval and modern Hebrew literature all offer examples of ethical wills.
Ethical wills are still a part of current Jewish culture, as many Rabbis and Jewish people create a zava’ah – a document or letter designed to pass ethical values from generation to generation.
While spiritual in origin, modern-day ethical wills don’t have to be faith-based. An ethical will is simply a document that communicates your personal experiences, life lessons, and subsequent values to your family. It describes (and ideally preserves) who you are and what you hold to be most valuable. As it can be such a powerful tool for communicating your values and wishes for your family’s future, it is often used by attorneys and Financial Planners as part of comprehensive estate planning.
Why Apply an Ethical Will: Sharing Your Story
Since an ethical will does not act in a legal sense, like a will that dictates how your assets are handled upon your death, why would you want or need one?
First and foremost, creating an ethical will allows you to pass more of yourself on to your family, other than just physical assets. You can ensure your story is told to current and future generations. Because this piece of your legacy planning is much more personal than the other pieces, it can bring warmth and comfort to your family in a time of grief.
The process of writing an ethical will also allow you to reflect on your life, especially if you are preparing it when you expect to live many more years. It can be a healthy, and sometimes challenging, exercise in self-reflection. You can document your accomplishments and obstacles, and even uncover ways to improve or make changes. It’s a way to pass on key lessons. Starting can be as simple as answering three questions:
• What have you learned?
• What is left to learn?
• Who is important to you and what do you want to tell him or her?
The Why of Your Family Heirlooms
As part of estate planning, an ethical will can also be used to pass down sentimental items or family heirlooms that have little to no financial value (thus not considered assets). These items could be old family photographs or albums, clothing, recipes or books (such as a Bible). This is also an opportunity to add further explanation to how and why you set up your will and/or trust the way you did.
How to Get Started
If you see an ethical will as a valuable part of your legacy, it’s never too early to start writing one. And as with other aspects of estate planning, it can be updated as you gain more life experiences, as your family grows or as your life lessons change.
In addition to your own story, consider adding in components of an ethical will that your ancestors may have passed on to you. This could be written stories, songs, photographs or anything meaningful that you wish to continue in your family.
Because an ethical will is highly personal and not legal, it does not need to follow any specific structure. Write a letter (like President Obama did to his daughters). Create an audio or video recording. Make a digital presentation, such as with PowerPoint or Keynote. Build a memory book that combines stories and events with pictures. The options are endless and can be as custom as you’d like. The style of the ethical will may even be just as relevant to you and your personality as the contents.
Ethical wills can be an important part of the estate planning process, to some people perhaps more important than the transfer of material possessions. Even though it is not a legal document, it is something that your attorney and Financial Planner can assist with as it can accompany all other documents so that everything is in one place and you can be sure it will be passed along to your family upon your death.
Your legacy is more than just your assets – consider what matters most to you and what you want for your family, then communicate it. To learn more about ethical wills, or how to get started, contact Stableford today by calling 480.493.2300 or contact us online.