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Writing an Ethical Will: Passing on a life worth living

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

I regularly discuss the importance of estate planning documents. Estate planning is a popular topic of conversation not only in finance, but also in therapy because clients are often concerned with mortality and incapacity. After all, incapacity marks undeniable loss of control, which is something that disturbs most living beings on a visceral level. Estate planning documents allow us to control what is done with our bodies and what is done with our money ahead of that inevitable loss of control.

An overview of the three most prevalent documents is as follows, (in non-attorney language, of course):

1. The durable power of attorney assigns a trusted person to advocate for us if we fall incompetent.

2. The living will assigns our tangible assets to heirs.

3. The healthcare power of attorney gives instructions to a trusted person to make decisions about our medical care on our behalf.

As a therapist and financial advisor, I see a major missing document that is not listed above. None of these three documents give us an official way to control what is done with our most valuable assets: wisdom, values, and ideas. Enter the Ethical Will. The Ethical Will is a tradition that was popular in medieval times. It was used to pass on wisdom on how to live a life worth living. You might even relate the Ethical Will to a memoir with a clear purpose. You could choose to write it, or even make a video or tape recording.

Instructions to help you form an Ethical Will

  1. Decide who you are talking to. Just like any other estate planning instruction, decide who you are benefiting and addressing. Your kids, partner, spouse, nieces and nephews, siblings, parents, friends, guardians, mentors, employees, unborn child, etc.?

  2. Be clear. Again, just like any other estate planning document, you want to be as clear and concise as possible so your audience knows what you want.

  3. Why are you writing it? Don't groan, but do you remember learning (or pretending to learn) how to write a thesis in school? Well, it might help to brush up on that skill for your Ethical Will. Basically, you want to form a summary of your main point in a sentence or two and then use the rest of the document to explain it and back it up. For example, "Out of all of the skills I learned in my life, practicing meditation became the key to achieving health, happiness, and fulfillment. In this Ethical Will, I will share my most treasured wisdom and values that grew stronger and clearer with meditation in order to guide you toward also living a worthy life."

  4. Get emotional. Now is the time to not only express yourself intellectually and wisely, but also emotionally. Communicate your feelings for your readers and explain why those feelings motivated you to write them this Will. Tell them how much you love them or how worried you are for them. Tell them how hopeful you are for them and how happy you feel to be able to share this Will.

  5. Get creative in what you include. Sometimes the most unexpected worldly experiences bring us so much fulfillment. For example, your grandmother's apple pie recipe. Maybe just the smell of that apple pie recipe brings you back to a time that brought you sheer bliss. Include that recipe in your Will! Some other ideas: photographs, clothing, and childhood toys. You could also use the Ethical Will to explain the choices you made in your legal Will a little further to lessen the chance for hurt feelings or misunderstandings.

  6. Decide when to write it. You can write an Ethical Will at any age. Newsflash: we could all become incapacitated or die at any moment, whether we are 25 or 85. Maybe you start writing it at a younger age and continue to build on it throughout your lifetime. As soon as you feel you have a purpose, have at it.

Want to talk to someone more about an Ethical Will or concerns around estate planning, mortality, or incapacitation? Set up a meeting with Brass Tax:

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