ETHICAL WILLS: Messages from the Heart
Updated: Mar 16
Many people are unfamiliar with an ethical will – also known as a ‘legacy letter’. In this article we will describe what an ethical will is, explore what it aims to accomplish, and how it differs from a legal will. A Survivor's Letter can be an important part of your overall estate plan.
Unlike a traditional will or trust which is a legal document that transfers your personal and physical assets to your loved ones or charities after you pass, an ethical will aims to leave behind those intangible gifts to your loved ones such as personal stories, life lessons, wisdom you’ve gained from your life experiences, blessings, how you wish to have values or traditions preserved, and much more. It is your personal legacy letter to those who you’ve included in your legal will and is written by you, rather than an attorney.
Not Exactly a New Idea
Since ancient times, people have shared stories, wisdom, and blessings with future generations in hopes of leaving a personal legacy. A dying Jacob gathered his sons to offer them his blessings and to request them to bury him in Canaan with his ancestors, rather in Egypt. In modern times, Barack Obama’s legacy letter to his daughters, written on the eve of his inauguration in 2009, told his own personal story, expressed his values, and asked them to reach beyond their individual life goals to help others.
Messages You May Want to Include
Because your life’s worth cannot be measured by possessions alone, an ethical will is a beautiful way to relay meaningful messages to your loved ones straight from your heart. Messages that you may want to include are:
Cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions you would like your family to preserve
A written document with family history and stories to be cherished for years to come
Your own personal story and how major events in your life have impacted you and formed your values
Life lessons you want to pass on to your children
Gratitude to those you cherish that you have not thanked enough
Apologies to those you fear you may have hurt in the past
Guiding principles you’ve lived by and hope are adopted by those you’ve left behind
Wishes for your family and future generations
Inheritance Decisions Explained
If you’ve decided not to divide your estate equally among your beneficiaries for various reasons, your ethical will is an opportunity to explain why you have made these decisions. Maybe one of your children is financially well off and receives less of your inheritance than someone who is in greater need. Or, if it is important to you that one of your children follow your strong religious beliefs and they’ve chosen another path, this might also influence how your estate is being divided. If one beneficiary is to receive their inheritance outright, while another’s will remain in trust for many years, an ethical will offers you the opportunity to explain why.
Sharing Your Letter Sooner than Later
An ethical will tells your family what it is in in your meaningful life experiences that helped shape your values. It can be used as a healing tool offering apologies to those you have hurt and forgiving those you have hurt who may have hurt you. And finally, it allows you to share any advice you have for your family going forward. These are all good reasons why your loved ones should read your legacy letter now, while you’re still living. Sharing it with family and friends before you pass may also offer you greater peace of mind – having left nothing unsaid. If worded properly – leaving out judgments and criticisms – your loved ones will cherish your legacy letter for many years to come.
An ethical will does not attempt to replace a legal will, but is a natural compliment to it and can be a part of your overall estate planning. If you need assistant with estate planning, Ronald J. Axelrod, a Rochester, NY, attorney, can assist you. Call Ron at (585) 203-1020 to set up a complimentary initial appointment.
About Ronald J. Axelrod
Ron founded Ronald J. Axelrod & Associates more than 35 years ago and focuses his practice on estate planning including wills and trusts, elder law and Medicaid planning, and business law in Rochester, New York. He is also co-founder of a business brokerage firm, Transworld Business Advisors of Western New York. His law offices are located at 290 Linden Oaks, Suite 200, Rochester, NY 14625. He can be reached by calling (585) 203-1020 or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit his website: https://www.ronaxelrod.com/