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Barney McKenna & Olmstead, P.C.
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What is an Ethical Will?


In our culture it is customary for a person to execute a Last Will and Testament or Revocable Trust that sets forth the distribution of material things. But there is a concept that, although not new, is gaining popularity by those who wish to pass on things that may be more important than assets.

The “Ethical Will” is a statement of personal values. It can set forth life philosophies, wishes or appeals for family harmony, religious testimonials, reasons for arranging one’s estate the way one has – almost any final message that a person wants another (or others) to know after he or she is gone.

An Ethical Will could be defined as any personal message from a parent or grandparent – or anyone – to the survivors who are of the highest significance. A close friend, an attorney, or a trusted family member will know that the Ethical Will exists, its location, and when and to whom it should be delivered or its location made known. Most times such letters are only delivered after a person has passed away, according to specific instructions left beforehand by the writer.

It is not easy to write – or to read – an Ethical Will. The writer probes and evaluates personal convictions and biases, and confronts reality. The process compels self-examination of what had been learned over a lifetime, facing up to failures as well as successes, and deciding what really counted in the long run. Examining one’s thoughts and motives for an “Ethical Will” includes whether such a document should really be written.

The “Will” can be taped, if that is easier or more appropriate than writing. If time permits, drafts might be set aside for a few weeks or months, then critically reviewed by the author. Will what was written be meaningful, or even significant, to those who read it? Visualize it being read aloud to the family by a spouse or other member of the family. Will the content uplift and cause improvements in lifestyles, or understanding of certain decisions? Will it express thoughts with kindness and love? Will it offer forgiveness for a longstanding grudge? Will it give grandchildren a sense of what hardships their grandparents endured to make their lives better? Will it expose an expanded sensitivity that family members thought was not possible?

The Ethical Will can be a forum for expressing deep and philosophical opinions, for leaving a piece of oneself that may have been difficult to reveal while alive, or for any reason that is important to the writer.

There are some attorneys that will assist in drafting an Ethical Will, if someone has a problem with writing or formulating just the right words on their own. It is yet one more way to leave behind a legacy – a legacy of who you are and what you thought important enough to let your loved ones know – after you are gone.