Ethical Wills: The Missing Piece of Estate Planning
By Jane Lehmann
Ethical wills are a chance to leave love and wisdom to those who follow.
Don’t it always seem to go that we spend so much time worrying about our financial legacy, we don’t always allocate enough time for our spiritual legacy (or even our historical legacy). An ethical will is a chance to put down what we care about most. An ethical will on video is the most accessible option for those interested in preserving more than just “things” after they pass.
For financial advisers engaged in estate planning, the importance of an ethical will on video (or in writing) should always be discussed with clients. And for clients disposing of substantial wealth, an ethical will can help the next generation become ethical stewards of the family funds. Accumulation of wealth was seldom an end in itself – the relevant founder almost always had a struggle in the background and a specific goal firmly in mind for the future. That should not be lost.
Ethical wills are not, at bottom, ever about wealth. They are about wisdom.
My Dear Children,
I have dealt with my estate in the will I just now finished signing along with the associated arrangements. In due time you will see how I have divided my possessions. I trust and hope you will think it fair.
But now I want to turn to more important matters. I want to talk to you about what I think is truly important in life.
So might start an ethical will – a letter or video to children or other significant people in our lives telling them about what we have come to believe and what lessons we have learned in the course of our lives.
Some choose to record an ethical will on paper, others choose to record their message in a video ethical will.
First of all, thank you for all you have done. I didn’t always say it, but I always felt it.
I am so happy with how you turned out and the decisions you made. You have made me proud.
Some consultants advise expressing gratitude or praising children in an ethical will – setting the record straight once and for all. After all, we spend so much time advising and guiding, we often neglect to say – simply and directly – what we really feel.
Some care is needed in composing an ethical will on video – or in writing. Especially if you have in mind to mention individuals. For one thing, you will not be in a position to take back something that is poorly handled. Be careful about damning with faint praise, or favoring one child over another, or trying to define a child or grandchild. Always best to avoid that.
Also called “legacy letters” and “spiritual wills”, an ethical will can set out your inner thoughts and personal philosophies.
People are good. Never believe the opposite.
You will see all kinds of foolish and selfish conduct from others. But remember that we are all struggling with the enormous burden of navigating our way through uncertain times. And sometimes the decisions we make are poor ones. But single decisions do not define us or anybody else. Our common humanity defines us.
The focus of most of our planning for the days when we are no long around is on our property: our real estate, our business, our savings, our personal treasures. And that is how it should be. What little we have gathered, or what abundance it has been our good fortune to acquire, must go to the right places.
And we live in a highly regulated, complex world. So our estate planning has to take into account issues of balancing our own present and future needs with those of our loved ones. An estate plan also needs to address issues of taxation, trusts perhaps and appropriate trustees, guardianship maybe if under-age children are involved, health care proxies, and of course the proper distribution of assets to family, friends and charity. And depending on where our assets are located, the laws of more than one State may be involved.
But don’t forget the ethical will. How many fathers have toiled selflessly for decades to be the “good provider” only to have children feel that they were neglected? It is important to explain decisions which may have had adverse consequences for children.
I worked a lot when you were all small. I grew up with very little and didn’t want to see you go without.
I realize now that, while I was providing material comforts, I wasn’t always the father I should have been. If I got that balance wrong in your thinking, know that I did it out of love and concern. I am trying to do better now.
Be careful about over stating what you know in an ethical will.
What is the point of it all? What is the point in our short lives here on earth?
Unfortunately, my advanced years have not brought me any special insight into that. I wish it had! Although, I do believe that age brings some wisdom, or perspective.
Whatever might ultimately be revealed of our reason for being here on earth, as far as I can see there is really only one sensible purpose to our short time here.
Ethical wills have been around in one form or another for millennia. They are part of our very human desire to use our experience and hard-earned lessons to benefit those around us. And the legacy letter, written to be read and reread after we have gone, is an especially powerful method of delivery. The most final and therefore the most potent.
Does that mean that an ethical will should only be read after our death?
In my work – helping people with ethical wills on video I find that sharing our thoughts about the big issues, the emotional issues, the stuff that is just so hard to talk about after a lunch or a dinner – should not wait until the end. Although, the impact of your words is likely to be highest after you are gone. They are then final and immutable.
As much as we can, we should make the lives of those around us, and those whose lives we can affect, as advantaged as possible. We must look after ourselves and our families of course. But we should do good for others.
It is only by doing good for others that we can meaningfully do good for ourselves.
When should a person start on an ethical will? None of us know the day or hour of our death so there is never any time to waste.
The simplest approach is to take paper and a pen and just get started. Once you have mapped out some ideas, you can write a longer letter. Some people choose to create an ethical will on video. That approach allows a personal, emotional delivery of the message. With professional help, the end product can cover personal and family history and give the ethical will priceless context.
I am not going to tell you how you should spend your time. All of us strive for the right mix of work and play.
But in my life, I found that my greatest happiness and my greatest satisfactions always came from achievement. They came from being productive.
I found that fun was the best fun when it was earned.
An ethical will on video or in writing. Don’t let it be the missing piece of your estate plan.