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Ethical Will: An Ancient Tradition Made New Again



The typical will is a set of instructions to a person charged with the duty of carrying out those instructions. The usual instructions center on paying debts and taxes and distributing the rest of the property of the testator (person who made the will) to various loved ones and charities. This type of will is not designed to share the ethical values of the testator. This has been a problem for many people who want to pass on their ethical values along with their worldly possessions. It seems that this has ever been so, because ethical wills are nothing new.

Ethical wills have been known for over 3,000 years. They were a tradition particularly among Jewish men and were initially an oral tradition. Modern practice is to write an ethical will at the intersection of one’s life and is certainly not limited to gender or religion.

An ethical will may be referred to as a “legacy letter” and is used in connection with a last will and testament (or a revocable living trust) to give context to the distributions of worldly goods at death or gifts during one’s lifetime. An ethical will may also be in the form of a written blessing from the author to the next generation. In concept, ethical wills are documents designed to pass ethical values from one generation to the next. While each ethical will is unique to its author, there are common themes, such as the following:

  • Announcement of personal values and beliefs;
  • Explanation of spiritual values;
  • Articulation of the hopes and blessings for future generations;
  • Sharing life’s lessons learned;
  • Declaration of love;
  • Expression of forgiveness of others; and
  • Asking for forgiveness.

Ethical wills provide a way for the author to be remembered by future generations; to tell the author’s story or the family’s story; to identify important values in hopes of continuing these values in the next generation; to become more self-aware; to come to terms with the author’s mortality; and to provide a sense of completion.

People often write an ethical will upon an engagement to marry of a loved one. An ethical will can be that writing that shares the lessons of marriage learned by a father and passed on to a son, or a mother to a daughter. Think of writing to a new parent upon the birth of a first child to articulate the hopes and blessings for that new generation. Other transitions in life also call for deeper connections and a sharing among the generations, such as upon a divorce in the family, a child’s leaving home for college or the military, upon reaching middle age or old age, and finally the last transition at the end of life.

The transitions in life provide the context for writing an ethical will, but those transitions do not provide guidance on how to get started. This article will help you navigate the ethical will process.

First, identify the audience. One poignant ethical will was written by a father to his 18-year-old son on the eve of the son’s departure to France. The father expressed his love for his son and shared his hope that his son pursue his heart’s desire upon returning from WWI.

Second, consider your intentions. Is the intention to provide guidance or to scold? Is it to explain your personal beliefs and values? Is it to bestow your hopes for the future of a grandchild? What is chosen will set the tone. Some ethical wills that have survived down through the ages are specific instructions from parent to child on how each moment of each day is to be lived. Others are seeking forgiveness for the wounds caused over the years. Still others are expressions of love and statements of personal values.

Third, reflect on what to say. In getting started, it is useful to write down ideas—a few words or a sentence or two about things such as:

  • Your beliefs and opinions;
  • Things you did to act on your values;
  • Something you learned from grandparents/parents/siblings/spouse/children;
  • Something that you are grateful for;
  • Your hopes for the future.

Fourth, decide when to share the ethical will. An ethical will can be shared at a special moment in the recipient’s life, such as a birth, wedding, or milestone birthday. Some, if not most, wait until the end of life. There are no rules except to search your own heart to know the appropriate moment for you to share it.

Fifth, do no harm. Take care that the words written or spoken are received as the author intended. Ethical wills have the potential to be wielded as a weapon or as an expression of love and gratitude. Once written, review the ethical will as if you were the recipient. Ask yourself how you would respond upon receiving the document.

If you want to learn more, here are some resources:

  • Barry K. Baines, M.D., The Ethical Will Resource Kit (Josaba Ltd., 1998)
  • Barry K. Baines, M.D., Putting Your Values on Paper: The Ethical Will Writing Guide Workbook (Josaba Ltd., 2001)
  • Susan B. Turnbull, The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will (Benedict Press, 2d ed 2007)
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