In medieval times, Jewish men wrote letters to their sons, passing on guidelines for living a worthy life. These legacy documents were called "Ethical Wills," and provided for meaningful, enduring communication between generations. Modern people of all ages and faiths are now rediscovering this beautiful and sensible tool.
An Ethical Will or "personal legacy letter," is appealing because it provides thoughtful adults the opportunity to reflect on their own lives for the benefit of those who will follow them, and helps make sure that nothing really important gets 'lost in the cracks' between generations.
An Ethical Will is not a legal document, but as a concrete tool for personal expression, it is a valuable complement to legal and financial planning documents. After all, official documents only address, "What do I want my loved ones to have?" but an Ethical Will addresses, "What do I also want my loved ones to know?"
The letter can be merely a page, expressing love, e.g., "You are wonderful and I always want you to know that and carry my love with you forever." Or it can be longer, serving as the vehicle that transmits thoughts and information too important to go unarticulated. Some examples: sharing elements of personal or family history, providing human context to the money that will be inherited or given away down the line, giving trustees or guardians some personal guidelines or reflecting on helpful lessons learned.
The question of "legacy" is on the mind of elder clients, yet its ephemeral nature makes it difficult to address when drawing up estate documents. Inviting clients to consider creating an Ethical Will as a side document to their legal documents reflects your respect for the breadth and richness of their lives and reassures them that their "voice" can be heard long after they are gone.
Writing an Ethical Will:
• Start today. If you were not here tomorrow, what is the most important thing you would not want left unsaid? Write it down, now you've begun.
• Relax. You are not trying to write for the Pulitzer Prize. The letter is a gift of yourself, written for those you love, not for an imaginary panel passing judgment on your life or your writing.
• Ask yourself. What do I want to make sure my loved ones know and have in writing?
• Take it topic by topic. Don't try to write it all at once.
• Be yourself. You cannot bequeath what you never owned to start.
• Be careful. Don't contradict your legal documents. Keep a positive tone.
• Share it! Let everyone enjoy it while you are alive.
Susan Turnbull is the author of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will.
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