Ethical Wills

“Ethical wills are a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community.” – Physician and hospice director Dr. Barry Baines of Minnesota

Below is Dr. Baines’  description of the concept of ethical wills, and advice on how to write them.   I am very supportive of estate planning or other clients who wish to use his or other resources to prepare ethical wills.  

“Ethical wills are not new. The Hebrew Bible first described ethical wills 3000 years ago (Genesis Ch. 49). References to this tradition are also found in the Christian Bible (John Ch. 15-18) and in other cultures.  Initially, ethical wills were transmitted orally. Over time, they evolved into written documents. ‘Ethical wills’ are not considered legal documents as compared to ‘living wills’ and your ‘last will and testament’ which are legal documents.

Today, ethical wills are being written by people at turning points and transitions in their lives and when facing challenging life situations. They are usually shared with family and community while the writer is still alive.  Ethical wills may be one of the most cherished and meaningful gifts you can leave to your family and community.

Writing an ethical will may seem difficult. However, it can be viewed as the writing of a love letter to your family. Ethical Wills can include personal and spiritual values, hopes, experiences, love, and forgiveness. It may well be one of the most cherished gifts you can give to your family.”

 How To Write An Ethical Will:

Here are two different  approaches for creating your ethical will.

Approach #1

Using guided writing exercises to help you create content for your ethical will. 

Here are some ideas to help you get started.

  • Over time, write down ideas –a few words or a sentence or two about things like:
    • My beliefs and opinions
    • Things I did to act on my values
    • Things I learned from grandparents / parents / siblings / spouse / children
    • Things I learned from experience
    • Things for which I am grateful
    • My hopes for the future
  • Write about important events in your life
  • Imagine that you only had a limited time left to live. What would you regret not having done?
  • Save items that articulate your feelings, e.g., quotes, cartoons, etc
  • Review what you’ve collected after a few weeks or months
  • Clump related items together — patterns will emerge
  • Revise and expand the related categories into paragraphs
  • Arrange the paragraphs in an order that makes sense to you
  • Add an introduction and conclusion
  • Put this aside for a few weeks and then review and revise

Approach #2

Starting with a blank sheet of paper.

This is the most open-ended approach.  Keeping a journal or diary is an excellent way to write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Over time, review what you’ve written.  Themes will emerge from which you can create a comfortable structure for your ethical will.

These and other approaches are treated thoroughly in Dr. Baines’ book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.”

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