What do you want your loved ones to remember about you after you're gone? Unlike a legal will, which ensures that your assets are distributed according to your wishes, an ethical will lets you pass on your values, beliefs, and life lessons to future generations.
If you really want to leave something meaningful behind for your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and other people in your life, consider an ethical will or legacy letter. Read on to learn more.
What is an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter?
An ethical will is sometimes also referred to as a legacy letter. Whichever term you prefer, this is a final gift you leave for your loved ones. An ethical will has no legal bearing and it bestows no money or valuables. Instead, you’re passing on your wisdom, experience, reflections, and life lessons.
Ethical wills are often a simple document in the form of a letter, either digital or hand-written. But there’s no prescribed format. You can write a song or poem, or create a video, scrapbook, or even a PowerPoint presentation.
Some ethical wills may include photos, recipes, items of clothing or other objects that have (emotional, not necessarily financial) value to you.
Pass on your Values, Not Just Your Valuables (Why Write an Ethical Will?)
People often create ethical wills and legacy letters as a part of their estate plan. There are a number of reasons why you might be compelled to create one:
Pass on Your Values and Beliefs
Ethical wills are a way for you to communicate your values, beliefs, life lessons, and family stories to future generations. They can provide guidance, inspiration, and wisdom that can help loved ones navigate life's challenges.
Strengthen Family Bonds
Ethical wills can help bring families closer together by promoting a sense of shared heritage, tradition, and purpose. They serve as a link between past and future generations.
For example, by writing down family stories and memories from your childhood, you can ensure you’re not the last one to remember them. And your loved ones will appreciate having a lasting reminder of your voice, humor, and outlook on life.
Provide Context for Your Legal Will
If you think there may be any confusion or hurt feelings around the decisions you made in your last will and testament, your legacy letter or ethical will offers a chance to explain them. The same goes for any medical decisions you might have made about advance directives.
Oftentimes, knowing why you did what you did can save your loved ones from fights or distress in an already difficult time.
Achieve a Sense of Purpose or Fulfillment
You may find that writing an ethical will turns out to be a fun or even cathartic experience. Many retirees report a renewed sense of purpose and clarity by reflecting on what matters most to them.
By reflecting on difficulties you endured, and ultimately overcame, you may begin to feel more at peace with your life. Recalling your happiest moments allows you to cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude. And if you fear death, you may find this exercise helpful in facing those fears head-on.
How to Write an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter
Here are some practical tips to help you get started with writing your ethical will:
Decide Exactly Who It’s For
Ethical wills are most often addressed to children and close family, while a legacy letter may be for anyone. Either way, decide exactly who you want to communicate with, and how.
For example, you might choose to write to your entire family at once, or address them in separate letters. Instead of writing “To Whom it May Concern,” use specific names, nicknames, or terms of endearment to begin your letter.
Brainstorm Ahead of Time
When it comes to writing your letter, some people have too many ideas, and others not enough. Try brainstorming for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. You may even want to keep a running list of topics as they come to mind.
Here are some ideas for narrowing down the information you’ll include:
- Reflect on your core values and beliefs, and list them out.
- What are your fondest memories and proudest moments? (such as the day you got married, your children’s birthdays, graduating from college, first school play, etc.)
- What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them? What lessons did they teach you?
- What are your favorite songs, books, jokes, movies, and quotes?
- Who and what had the most impact on your life and why?
- What advice would you like to give your family members for navigating life?
- Are there any religious, cultural, or family traditions you’d like your loved ones to carry on and pass down? Maybe a beloved recipe?
- What hopes do you have for your surviving family?
- Are there any decisions you’ve made in your legal will that you’d like to explain further?
- Confessions or apologies to make?
Edit and Revise
You don’t have to write it all at once, and your first draft most likely won’t be your last. It’s also important to keep your ethical will up-to-date as new members join your family or you add new lessons and experiences.
Read the letter out loud and ask yourself “Will it make sense to the reader? Does it open and close smoothly? Would you feel moved by the letter if it was addressed to you?”
Keep It With Your Other End-of-Life Documents
Decide how you want to deliver your ethical will (via email, letter, etc.) and who will be responsible for it. You may decide to have your lawyer, financial planner, or the executor of your estate handle your ethical will. Whoever it is, make sure they know where to find it when the time comes.
We recommend keeping your ethical will alongside your other estate planning documents, such as your legal will, medical power of attorney, and advance care directives.
Don’t Wait to Start Writing Your Ethical Will
Many people start writing an ethical will when they are older, such as in retirement. Others begin thinking about them once they start building a family. No matter what stage of life you’re in now, it’s never too early to start.
If you have any desire at all to pass on your values and memories, and leave something for you don’t miss your opportunity. And, you can keep adding to it as you experience new highs, lows, and lessons.
It’s All Part of the Bigger Picture
Many people put off estate planning, or avoid it altogether. We understand it’s not as much fun as designing the retirement lifestyle of your dreams. But that’s no excuse. Estate planning is an extremely important piece of your financial and retirement plans. Far from being an act of surrender, an estate plan gives you agency in your later years (and after you’re gone). It’s also an act of love for those you’ll leave behind.
Having your affairs in order spares your loved ones from extra emotional, financial, and philosophical burden during difficult times. Instead of having to “figure it all out” in a state of shock and grief, they can just follow the plan you’ve outlined. Surviving children and spouses have said this is truly priceless, and the best gift they could have gotten.
Most estate plans are set up with the help of an attorney specializing in estate law, a financial planner, and potentially a tax advisor. At Wealth Legacy Institute, we lead you through the entire planning process from start to finish, including connecting you with trusted partners from our network. So you don’t have to worry. And we are fiduciaries, which means it’s literally our job to put your interests first.
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