Ethical wills let you share life’s lessons
Rebecca Schreiber, a Manhattan real estate agent, was getting her papers in order after a divorce and decided that, along with redoing her legal will, she would also write up an ethical will for her two young children.
“It was a way to convey my wishes and hopes to my children,” Schreiber, 42, said.
Ethical wills, or legacy letters as they are also called, are documents to “communicate values, experiences and life lessons to your family,” said Abby Schneiderman, co-founder of Everplans, which helps people plan and store important documents online in one location.
Barry Baines, a hospice medical director in Minneapolis and St. Paul and author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, said he first came upon the concept in the 1990s when he and his colleagues were working on a project about existential pain at the end of life.
A dying young man told them his nonphysical pain was a 10 out of 10. Even though this patient was a husband and father, “He told us, ‘I feel like I’m going to die, and there won’t be any trace that I was ever on the Earth.’”
When Baines heard this, he recalled a book he had read about ethical wills and suggested the patient create one with some guidance from a chaplain. The patient “grabbed onto the idea like a drowning person grabs onto a life preserver,” Baines said. And when it was done, the young man said his spiritual suffering had dropped to zero.
Baines is also co-founder of livingwisely.org, a company that, among other things, offers both guidance for creating ethical wills and trains facilitators — such as financial planners, hospice workers and those who work in faith communities — about how to help people fashion their own legacy letters.
No one needs an expert to write their own ethical will, Baines acknowledged, but services like his are a way to prompt people to do it. “Everyone is capable of doing it by themselves,” he said. “But you need that protected time to reflect and write.”
While the task may seem daunting, most people’s ethical wills aren’t long, perhaps only a page or two. For those who don’t know where to start, Schneiderman suggests writing about their personal history, favorite things, academic and professional life, religious and political views, and hopes for the future.
Ethical wills take many forms
Be creative. Jo Kline, a retired attorney and author of So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will, said her ethical will is a slideshow with photos of loved ones and her favorite quotes.
Or, think of how a favorite hobby can convey to others your passions and beliefs. For example, Kline, 68, recommended that if you love cooking, take beloved recipes and annotate them with memories and hopes for future family gatherings.
Legacy letters can even be accidental. Kline discovered a two-page typewritten letter from her uncle that was saved by his brother (her father) while clearing out her parents’ house in the early 2000s. Her uncle had written the letter in 1963 on the back of a church bulletin shortly after his only child had died in an airplane crash.
In it, her Uncle Bill urges his brother to take walks, to worry about his mental health as well as his physical health, to keep an open mind and be tolerant of others. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘This is my uncle’s ethical will. But he didn’t have any idea what it was called,’” Kline said.
For many, leaving an ethical will seems like a grandiose idea, that their lives are too ordinary or unsuccessful for them to have valuable insights to share. But the struggles are where life lessons come from, Baines said.
Kline also urges those considering writing a legacy letter to perhaps do it at their life’s milestones — for instance, when you become an empty nester or when you retire. The document can also be one of self-reflection for how you want to live the rest of your life.
“It’s a way to soul-search what I want the rest of my footprint to look like,” she said. “What do I stand for?”
© 2020 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Creating Your Ethical Will: Lessons of a Lifetime
What have you learned from life that you want to share? Here are some topics to address in your ethical will. Feel free to change the order of the questions, skip some or add new ones.
- What values are important to you?
- What are your spiritual beliefs?
- If you have children and/or grandchildren, what thoughts would you like to pass down to them? If not, what thoughts would you like to pass down to others?
- Were there any books or movies that influenced you? In what way?
Words of Wisdom
- Can you offer any advice to others about living their lives? Or are there any words of wisdom you may wish to impart to the next generation?
- What would you want your family to know about you that they may not already know?
- What have you learned from your life experiences? What have they taught you?
- Have you ever had a life-altering experience or event that changed your life? How did this event affect you? Was this the most significant moment of your life?
- What was the most meaningful event in your life? Did it change the way you view the world?
- What made your life worth living? Was it a special relationship, your work, your beliefs, hobbies or interests?
- Did you fulfill all the dreams of your youth? If not, which didn’t you fulfill?
- What have you learned from your parents or grandparents that you wish to share with your children?
- Who is or was the most important person in your life? Why? What did you learn from that person?
- Were there any others who greatly impacted your life? Who and how?
Regrets and Gratitude
- What you are especially grateful for?
- Do you have regrets — something you did or did not do?
- What are you are most proud of?
- What was the hardest decision you ever made?
- What hopes and/or dreams do you have for your loved ones?
- Is there anything in your life that you should have done differently?
Change and the Future
- If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you change it?
- If you only had one year to live, what would you do?
—Hedy Peyser and Joshua Stanton
© 2007 Hebrew Home of Greater Washington