November 16, 2010

Creating An Ethical Will


photo credit: Valerie’s Genealogy Photos

We all know what a Last Will and Testament is, whether we have one or not. It’s that legal, binding document (given that it’s created correctly) the dispenses with your personal assets after your death. It’s all about the material things one has amassed in their lifetime and had at the time of death. There may be provisions regarding guardianship of minor children or even pets. But it’s all very cut and dry and legal. And even if you put caveats on who gets what under certain circumstances, all those extra requirements can possibly be over-ridden by the courts if they are too restrictive or are emotional and unable to be monitored or enforced by a court.

An Ethical Will, by contrast, is not a legal document. It is, at it’s most basic, a letter to your family and friends about your personal wishes. It is a very personal document which is created to share your ideas of what you want for your family. It is about your hopes and dreams for your children and grandchildren, and possibly future generations. An Ethical Will can include whatever the writer wants. Love, hopes, disappointments, dreams, values, beliefs, spiritual insight. Whatever. It can also be where you ask for forgiveness or even offer forgiveness.

It can be updated and revised to our heart’s content. No lawyer is needed. No notary or special seal. Just our thoughts, a pen and paper. Or if you want to type it, that’s great too.

As far back as 3000 years ago, there is recorded history of ethical wills. The Bible (both New and Old Testaments) has many examples of both the written and oral tradition of Ethical Wills. These documents were found to have contained religious and spiritual testaments to the future generations. The most prominently studied Ethical Will dates back to the 12th Century and is from a Spanish Jew, Judah iba Tibbon, to his son.

Today, many people are writing Ethical Wills to share their spiritual side with their family. As people become parents later these documents are becoming more popular because parents want to ensure that their child(ren) know what their parents hoped and dreamed and desired for them. Even young people who remain single are preparing Ethical Wills, as a way to let their parents know that they were good and just people.

I don’t have an Ethical Will, per se. I do have a letter that I wrote to BabyGirl before she was born and I have a series of journals that I have kept for her. I have given thought to preparing a ‘real’ Ethical Will. Not just for BabyGirl but also for CycleGuy and my close friends and family, should anything – G-D forbid – happen to me. While this blog is somewhat of an Ethical Will, it’s not really. It has my thoughts but not my deep religious and spiritual thoughts. For some, their blog could truly be an example of a modern Ethical Will. Mine, not so much. And I’m fine with that.

By creating an Ethical Will you are sharing your thoughts, which may not have been shared while alive. The writer is no longer alive to defend him or herself and therefore, this document shouldn’t be made in haste. Leaving loved ones with more questions is a possibility. The readers are left behind as voyeurs, looking in where they may not have been previously privileged. It is a privilege to read the Ethical Will, just as it is to create one.

Many people ponder what they would tell people ‘on their death bed’. Rather than ponder, why not write it down? There are wonderful sources online to help people create an Ethical Will. Many of them from the Jewish perspective on Ethical Wills because historically they date back to the the Hebrew Bible. But there are also secular sources for Ethical Wills.

Do you have an Ethical Will? Is it something you’ve considered but haven’t gotten around to yet? Would you want to write one? I’d love to know your thoughts, and I embark on this journey to create my own Ethical Will.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. This is not legal advice and should not be construed as such.



Chelsea November 16, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I don’t have one, but now that I’ve recently gotten married and am pregnant I’ve actually been thinking about this lately. It makes sense to me to leave family with some lasting wishes and closure.

Honey November 18, 2010 at 12:27 am

Hi Sara,

I have never heard of this type of will before. It certainly sounds intriguing and something that I would love to look more into. Thank you for posting about it. I always learn so much from you.


Sara November 18, 2010 at 11:09 am

Hi Honey,

Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’m glad you were able to learn about Ethical Wills. They have been around for a very long time, just not very mainstream. I think they are a great idea so family and friends know true feelings. With kids, it might even be more important because it can share belief systems and desires for the kids as well as anyone who may need to look after them if they are young.

One more thing to add to the ‘To Do’ list, huh?


Jo Kline Cebuhar, J.D. November 18, 2010 at 12:34 pm

An Ethical Will can certainly take many forms. I wouldn’t be so quick to say that your blog doesn’t qualify, Sara. The core elements of an Ethical Will are beliefs and values, life lessons and hopes for the future. If your posts reflect on one or more of those basics, it may be the start of a great Ethical Will.
As for when to share, an Ethical Will can be a serial, shared periodically, or a message intended to be part of your memorial. Along with when to create and with whom to share, this is one of the many aspects of crafting an Ethical Will that can be as unique as each creator. Go for it!
Thanks for making more people aware of the concept. I consider this season the trifecta of reasons to create an Ethical Will: 1) Thanksgiving, the season of reflection and gratitude, 2) Christmas or Hannukah, the celebration of our spiritual selves and 3) New Year’s, looking forward with hope.

Sara November 19, 2010 at 1:43 am

Hello Jo, thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a wonderful and helpful comment. I’d love to learn more from you about Ethical Wills and share it with my readers. I’m fascinated by the broad application they can have.

Best Regards,

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