Few people use ethical wills right now, but I predict they will become more common in the future. An ethical will doesn’t deal with the transfer of property on death. Instead, it’s generally a letter to family members outlining one’s values, beliefs, and inner thoughts, often imparting words of wisdom and documenting family history and tradition.

An ethical will is often kept with one’s will or in the care of a family member. It can take on a variety of different forms: a recorded video, slide show, poem, scrapbook, etc. Regardless of form, an ethical will has no legal effect; if one wishes to attach conditions to a gift under a will, those conditions must be included in a legal will.

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Unlike a will, which becomes a public document after it is submitted for probate, an ethical will is generally a private document. Disclosure may be required in certain circumstances, like where the validity of the will is challenged.

An ethical will provides an opportunity to pass on a moral legacy to loved ones, which some may consider the most valuable legacy. It also provides an opportunity to say things that might otherwise go unsaid. A will is often dry and technical. But a will combined with an ethical will can be a compelling and wonderful gift to be cherished for generations.

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How to make one

Preparing an ethical will can be a lifetime process, and can provide an opportunity to consider what is most important to a client. An ethical will is a deeply personal document, and should be prepared by the client. Common topics include:

  • important life lessons;
  • mistakes made;
  • definitions of success;
  • the importance of family and friends;
  • words of wisdom;
  • influential events;
  • greatest joys;
  • the importance of education;
  • influential people; and
  • charitable pursuits.

Estate planning should involve not just the tangible but also the intangible, and an ethical will can fill an invaluable role in this planning. While it may require significant time and thought to prepare, its contents can ultimately be more important than any financial legacy.

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