When it comes to passing on your legacy to your children or heirs, there are more things to tackle than your assets, debts, and taxes. An ethical will is an opportunity to impart important life lessons, memories, family values, history, and rituals, just to name a few. To get the desired results of an ethical will, it’s essential to know what it entails and how you go about incorporating one in your estate planning.
Definition and History of Ethical Wills
The tradition of an ethical will has its roots in Christian and Jewish religions. The practice was documented in religious texts where fathers passed their blessing, values, history, and wishes for the family’s future to their sons. Some persons have gone as far as to call the document a ‘spiritual-ethical will’ because of the spiritual legacy you can leave for your loved ones.
Over time, the practice has expanded from a father-son dynamic to include anyone who would like to pass on essential information or values to those they will leave behind. In essence, an ethical will is a highly personalized document that you can use to communicate information you deem to be important.
Differences Between an Ethical Will and a Legal Will
The most important difference between an ethical will and an estate plan that includes a living trust and a “pour over” legal will (or just a stand along legal will if you have no living trust) is that the latter is legally binding. This is why a legal estate plan has a standard structure and many details that need to be addressed so you’re sure all of your needs have been covered. A good way to think about it is that a legal estate plan will helps you dictate how those you leave behind will handle your physical assets while an ethical will helps you pass on wisdom, family history and guidance. This is important to note because while you can express these wishes in an ethical will if you want, no one will be bound by law to follow your directive. You can have one document that is read to all your heirs in full or you can have individualized sections. It would be helpful, however, to include a reference to your ethical will in your legal estate plan so your loved ones know where to find it.
Legal estate plans aren’t just vital for disseminating assets, but they are also needed for expressing your debts and liabilities, as well as any taxes that might be owed. These are areas your loved ones will need to address after your passing so having iron-clad legal documents will be pertinent. Most importantly, legal documents help the process run more smoothly and your loved ones will avoid the expensive and time-consuming probate process.
If you have family heirlooms you’d like to pass on to certain loved ones, it’s recommended that you include that in your legal estate plan. That way, there will be no room for disobedience or fighting. This is crucial if the heirlooms have significant financial value. You can always use the ethical will to explain what the heirlooms mean and why they’re valuable to you and the family. If you want to, you can even explain why you’ve left them to different people.
What to Include in an Ethical Will
The details of what you include in your ethical will vary depending on what you would like to pass on to your children or heirs. For example, if you have rich family traditions or values that you would like to see continue, you can write about that. By including the history of the tradition and why it’s important, your loved ones are more likely to appreciate it.
Traditionally, persons also write about personal experiences that have shaped their lives and decisions. This is an opportunity to let your family get to know you better and understand more about what motivated you in life. They can also gain a few stories to pass on to their children.
If you have children and an estate plan that includes protective trust provisions, then an ethical will is a perfect way to provide instructions to your guardians and trustees concerning how you would like your minor children raised and how the money that you have set aside for them should be used. If you were in the position of acting as your child’s guardian and trustee, what information would you need to know about that child? Topics such as educational and religious preferences should be addressed. Additionally, this is an opportunity to provide critical information concerning your child’s medical, social or emotional needs.
Ethical wills will often contain future wishes for the family and what you’d love to see your children or heirs accomplish. Historically, the document would be used to pass on much-awaited blessings from the head of the household. In that vein, you could express what you’ve always admired about your children.
Most importantly, an ethical will is not the place to express your disapproval of your family’s lives or actions. An ethical will aims to pass on positive and helpful information so you should focus on what will build your family. If you dig deeper into why their behavior upsets you, you may find that the traditions and values you’ve included could influence positive changes.
When to Write an Ethical Will
There are no time restrictions on when to write an ethical will but just as your financial position can change over time so can your mindset. That means while you can prepare an ethical will at any age, you’ll have more to add as you age. Since you have no control over your passing, you should consider writing one now and adding to it when it’s necessary. If you take that route, however, make sure you only keep a copy of the most recent modification so there’s no confusion when the time comes for it to be read.
How to Write an Ethical Will
Even though many references are made to ‘writing’ an ethical will you can use different media to express your wishes. While there’s a nice personal touch to a handwritten document, you can also use a video or audio recording. It depends on what’s most convenient for you. Video and audio recordings are most helpful if you’re putting the ethical will together at a time when you have physical limitations.
Since this kind of document is not the same as a legal will, you also have more freedom when it comes to how you put all the information together. There are no restrictions on the format of your ethical will or standards for what you must include. Instead, the emphasis is on making sure you have said what you want to. You also don’t need a lawyer to draw one up for you or even a witness as it’s not a legally binding document.
An ethical will is a great addition to your estate planning. Once you’ve taken care of the legal aspects that will come with your passing or incapacitation, passing on traditions and values should be next on your list. These will be another asset for your loved ones to cherish and value. It will also encourage them to do the same for their children or heirs. The wisdom and lessons you pass on now could influence multiple generations.
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By Christopher E. Botti
(Image credit: Albert Anker)
The majority of our articles are written by our attorneys: Christopher Botti and