Leave a Lasting Gift with an Ethical Will

A legal will describes how you want your material assets to be distributed, but how do you leave behind your values? Using an ethical will, also called a legacy letter, you can tell your personal story and communicate your beliefs and life lessons to your family, friends, or community. You can opt to share it during your lifetime or leave it as a special gift for your loved ones to cherish after you’re gone.

Despite the name, an ethical will isn’t a legal document, and though often written, it can be in any creative format you choose. You might make a video or audio recording, create a photo album or a scrapbook, write and record a song, or put together a collection of recipes.

There are no rules that dictate what to include. For example, you might decide to write a few pages recounting meaningful family stories, while adding personal notes of love and gratitude. You might share challenges you’ve overcome or explain why you made certain decisions. You could tell your children how they have enriched your life or simply record a brief message to inspire future generations.

No matter which format you choose and what you decide to say, consider keeping the tone positive and helpful. Think about how your message might be received, and how future generations might benefit from what you have to say.

The process of writing an ethical will may seem daunting, but it can also be rewarding as you reflect on your experiences and what you truly value. Here are a few questions to help you get started.

  • What principles guide your life?
  • What are you most grateful for?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • How have specific experiences or events shaped you?
  • What are some important choices you’ve made?
  • How have you treated others, and how have others treated you?
  • What have you not had the chance to say?
  • Who were the most influential or admirable people in your life?
  • Which charitable organizations are most important to you and why?
  • What are your hopes for future generations?

If you need further information and inspiration, you can find samples, templates, books, and workshops online. Your attorney may also help guide you.

Once you’ve crafted your ethical will, make sure it’s preserved in digital or printed form, or both. Share it now, or keep it with other estate documents, such as a copy of your legal will and advance care directives, and tell others where to find it.