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What would you like to transfer to your loved ones, in addition to your assets? A memory of the day you fell in love with your life’s partner? Lessons learned from a lifetime of hard work? More and more people are finding that it’s important to share not just the material wealth they’ve accumulated, but also their spiritual wealth and wisdom. They are rediscovering an ancient tool known as an ethical will for transmitting their values to the next generation.

Based on a Hebrew tradition that is several thousand years old, an ethical will is a document that transmits your values to the next generation. It is a personal statement, distilling a lifetime’s worth of memories, experience, and advice into a communication to descendants. Though traditionally ethical wills have been written documents, today they just as often take the form of video or audio, so that loved ones can hear the deceased relative’s voice one more time.

Ethical wills are not legally binding and are completely separate from the last will and testament. But where the last will and testament, by its nature, is a dry legal document detailing only how the estate should be divided, an ethical will transmits a sense of the personality behind it. Every ethical will is different, but these documents typically incorporate some or all of the following elements:

Personal philosophy and values. Generally the author will talk about what’s important to him or her—religion, family, charity, work ethic, intellectual inquiry, the arts, or any other fundamental value. The idea is to share these guiding principles with heirs who may or may not know the author personally.

Family history
Older people often remember a great deal about the generations before them that no one else knows. An ethical will can be a good time to share this knowledge, making sure that younger people know about the stories and events that shaped their family and made them who they are. People who have earned their own wealth will often tell stories about the early days of their company, how they struggled to overcome obstacles, and how they ultimately succeeded.

Communication with loved ones
Authors can speak to individual members of their family about what they hope for them and how they can best achieve these goals. An ethical will can also be a chance to ask for and provide forgiveness. And, most powerfully, an ethical will can be an expression of love, where the author can speak quite movingly about the people who have mattered to him or her.

Ethical wills can also provide insight into why an estate is being distributed in a particular manner, but great care must be taken. The ethical will should not conflict with or contradict the actual last will and testament. Although it is not legally binding, the document can create ambiguity around the author’s intentions which may make it harder to settle the estate. In addition, most experts recommend keeping the ethical will positive—that is, not chastising or finding fault with one’s heirs in this context. It is usually possible to present values in a positive light without pointing out the lack of those values in family members or other beneficiaries. 

Creating an ethical will
An ethical will can take almost any form, from a simple letter to a full-blown audio-video presentation. But regardless of the format, it is important to nail down the message. People who want to create ethical wills may wish to keep a journal for a period of several weeks or months, noting down the ideas that are important to them so that they can convey these in the will. 

Once you have settled on your message, there are a variety of tools that you can use to create an ethical will. iPhone apps like the Ethical Will Video App can capture content via your cell phone, while ethical will templates can be found on the internet. Companies have sprung up to film and produce more elaborate video ethical wills. And, of course, you can simply write a letter or statement with no tools besides a computer or even pen and paper. 

You can also control when and how your ethical will is distributed. Often people ask that these documents be read (or shown) at their funeral or memorial service. Others include the ethical will in the same package as the last will and testament to be read as part of the process of estate settlement. Parents who are terminally ill and leaving young children behind may request that a letter or other document be given to the child at a certain age or on an occasion like the child’s marriage or graduation from high school.

Leaving a spiritual legacy as well as a material one is becoming increasingly important to many people, and ethical wills can be one way of transmitting that important inheritance to the next generation.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation for the sale of any financial product or service. This article is not designed or intended to provide financial, tax, legal, accounting, or other professional advice since such advice always requires consideration of individual circumstances. If professional advice is needed, the services of a professional advisor should be sought.

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