April 23, 2014

Ethical Wills and Legacy Planning – The Heart and Soul of Estate Planning

We’ve all seen it before, the backbone of the family dies leaving no will, trust, or insurance and – with her gone – the family fell apart. Family fights erupted and what assets she was able to accumulate during her life have dwindled away to pay unnecessary probate costs, attorney fees, taxes, and the cost of court battles waged over her estate by the family she left behind. Eventually, her family scattered to the winds, taking away with them only resentment of each other and virtually no memory of what she tried to instill in them. That is her legacy.

Legacy Planning is critical for us all to do. It can be simple, painless, and the most valuable investment we make in our family. Legacy Planning is comprised of two elements: Estate Planning and creation of what is called an Ethical Will.

Proper utilization of Estate Planning tools will allow us to pass our wealth and values from one generation to the next. If we each do this, could you even imagine the results and the healthy head start we provide for the coming generations! Estate Planning is discussed in detail elsewhere in this website. Here, we will focus on Ethical Wills.

Although they have roots in the Bible (see Genesis 49 when Jacob gathers his sons around his bed to dispense blessings and commands), Ethical Wills are a more recent phenomenon in the Estate Planner’s toolbox but are gaining in popularity. Ethical Wills are a type of “love letter” you write to your family and friends and leave a bit of you with them. These documents provide a positive, healthy, and organized way to:

  • Share your wisdom, personal beliefs, values, and life lessons
  • Encourage others with your spiritual or moral principles
  • Pass down your oral history and fond memories
  • Request and grant forgiveness from people
  • Encourage reconciliation or continued peace between family members
  • Give your hopes, blessings, and love to future generations
  • Leave your best wishes for the happiness of others

Unlike wills and trusts, Ethical Wills are not legally binding documents. But they could be the most cherished and meaningful writing you leave behind. Ethical wills vary in form and are as unique as the individual writing them. They vary from a short letter to a lengthy autobiographical statement to a recorded message. Some people choose to share their Ethical Wills during life at a significant family milestone, may hand a copy to a college-bound child, or read portions aloud at a wedding reception. Although unique, they all allow a person to bestow to others the benefits of their having lived a life and that could mean more than money.

Everyone – no matter how young, old, rich, poor, healthy, or infirm – should have a properly drafted Estate Plan. In addition, an Ethical Will would further contribute to the richness of your legacy and be cherished by your family now and for generations to come.