Written Legacy

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

November 21, 2008 5 min read


Transmit your values by creating an ethical will

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

You can leave your heirs your grandmother's gold locket, that antique desk or a pile of treasury bonds. However, the best legacy of all may be an ethical will that conveys your thoughts and values.

"We all want to be remembered -- not for the things we leave behind, but for the beliefs we lived by and the teachings we have to give," said attorney Jeffrey Asher, a partner in the trusts and estates group of the New York City law firm Pryor Cashman. He also serves as head of its elder care practice. "Ethical wills are used to pass down important personal values, lessons learned in life, wisdom, spiritual values, hopes and dreams for the family and the family's future."

The concept of today's ethical will is rooted in biblical history. In the book of Genesis, Jacob, the forefather of the 12 tribes of Israel, gathered his sons when he was on his deathbed to convey his "last will." It was one that consisted of blessings, commands and a prophecy about their futures.

That need to communicate thoughts and values has transcended the ages and for a growing number of adults, young and old, is embodied in an ethical will. You can write one yourself or hire a professional to do it for you. Some are hand-written. Others take the form of pricey hardcover books, videos or digital recordings. There are some that even look like a legal document, even though an ethical will has no legal standing.

The number of families who rely on relatives to manage their assets is declining. As a result, there has been a surge of interest in the ethical will as a way to integrate family values with wealth planning.

"This is especially important in today's financial world," explained Asher. "Because of the volatility of the markets and the complexity of investment choices, families are turning to professionals to manage their wealth planning. But in using professional advisors, the family loses the ability to have continuity in passing down family virtues and beliefs together with their assets. The ethical will provides that balance."

A growing number of estate planning attorneys and financial advisors routinely discuss the preparation of an ethical will with their clients. However, it is not a document that can stand alone. "In addition to the ethical will, most people also need a legal will," Asher said. "The two documents go hand-in-hand as two parts of a more comprehensive and properly prepared estate plan."

Like Asher, veteran financial planner Greg Womack, president of Womack Investment Advisers, Inc. in Edmund, Okla. and author of ?Wisdom and Wealth? ($15, Beacon Press), finds that interest in ethical wills is not confined to the elderly or retirees.

"I don't believe it's an age issue,? he said. ?Younger people who know their life could be cut short want to put their feelings and values down on paper so people can know their heart and how they feel about them and life's issues." Although his firm does not offer such services, he encourages clients to write an ethical will in a format of their choice.

His best advice for do-it-yourselfers? "Focus on the big picture," he said. In writing an ethical will, the most common error, he said, is dwelling on the small issues. "Things change from time to time. What is an issue right now could change frequently."

Websites like ethicalwill.com offer a comprehensive guide to preparing an ethical will, including what to put in it, where to get books, workbooks and software to guide you -- even sources for archival paper to preserve what you write. It also provides a directory, by state, of ethical will experts. Barry Baines, a family physician, chief medical officer of UCare Minnesota and associate medical director for Hospice of the Twin Cities, created the site and is also the author of ?Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper? ($14, Da Capo Press).

Baines is also the co-founder of The Legacy Center, a Minneapolis-based group that is dedicated to "preserving stories, values and meaning," according to its website, thelegacycenter.net. It also provides additional resources on how to write an ethical will.

You can also tap the Association of Personal Historians website, personalhistorians.org for a guide to members who specialize in creating ethical wills.

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