Ethical Wills: Crafting the Legacy You'll Leave Behind

An Ethical Will conveys values rather than valuables, feelings rather than furniture, untold blessings rather than unpaid bills.
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My grandmother died before I was born. She birthed 16 or 17 children (depending on which uncle one asks), raised 14 children who survived infancy, and died a relatively young woman. My grandfather had a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol, I'm told, and there were times when the children had nothing to eat, nor shoes on their feet. The few photos I've seen of my grandmother depicted the poverty of the Great Depression, her many responsibilities, and a way of life I can only imagine. Despite the hardships of her life, in most of the photos with family members, she is laughing with someone or cuddling a baby. She especially loved spending time with her sister and her children, based on the smiles in those old, dark, grainy photos. As a parent, I've often wondered how my Grandmother persevered under such difficult conditions, and how she managed to raise so many children who grew up to have successful marriages, and large families as well. I wonder what kept her going -- was it her faith, her friends, or lessons from her own upbringing that gave her such strength? I wish I could have known her personally to understand the life she lived.

My own children are in high school and college, and I look forward to knowing my own grandchildren one day. If something happens to me before they are born, I wonder what my children would tell their children and grandchildren about the life I've led. Would they tell them I devoted my adult life to raising my family first, and took jobs I hoped would "make a difference" in the world? Would my future grandchildren know I moved across the country with my husband as a young mother, leaving behind everyone I knew, to a place we thought might hold more promise for our kids? Will my kids mention I was a vegetarian or I loved to paint? Would they know how important it was to me to be an active member of my community? Would my kids tell their children I wasn't impressed at all by a person's bank account, but instead by the degree to which their work served others? Would they know how much respect I had for nurses, teachers, firefighters, community organizers, etc.? Would they tell their children and grandchildren that my husband and I argued all the time, or that despite the arguing, we loved each other, believed in marriage, and stayed together for decades? Could my stories prevent them from making the same mistakes I've made, or would they inspire them to be more successful? Can I somehow influence those grandchildren or great-grandchildren to live fuller, more meaningful lives by sharing what I've learned, through something I do today?

As a Funeral Pre-Planning Specialist, most of my clients are very familiar with the concept of a Living Will, which establishes an "agent" who is legally empowered to make their medical decisions if they have a terminal illness, and includes their wishes for advanced-stage medical treatment. Most people are also familiar with the concept of Estate Planning and creating a legal Will, which specifies which loved ones will inherit their physical property and financial reserves after they die. Few people have ever heard of an "Ethical Will", however. An Ethical Will conveys values rather than valuables, feelings rather than furniture, untold blessings rather than unpaid bills.

Ethical wills, sometimes called "Legacy Letters" or "Zava'ah" in Hebrew, have been around for centuries. They are mentioned in several places in the Bible; Jacob, Moses and David all left their accumulated wisdom and instructions clearly articulated to their heirs. Ethical wills became a popular custom in Judaism beginning in the 12th century as a way for fathers to pass on life instructions and spiritual guidance to their children and grandchildren. (An argument could be made that the Bible itself is an ethical will, of sorts.) They remained popular throughout the 18th century, and have been recently resurrected by spiritual leaders, community leaders and health care advocates like Dr. Andrew Weil and Marion Wright Edelman. Even President Barack Obama wrote a Legacy Letter intended for his daughters in 2009.

Ethical Wills can be short or long, hand-written or typed, notarized or simply signed by the writer. They can contain any number of things you want to leave for your family to remember you by, including: lessons learned, stories, apologies, explanations, memories, advice, spiritual guidance, poetry, blessings, expressions of gratitude, favorite photos or mementos, quotes, love letters -- whatever you wish. An Ethical Will may be in the form of a document, a song, a scrapbook, a poem, a box of mementos with notes, etc. Ethical Wills can be shared while you are living, or left behind to be found after your death. (If you leave it for after your death, be sure it will be in a place to be found easily.)

Your Ethical Will might have far-reaching implications for those you leave behind. Make sure it is inspiring and encouraging so that it will lift up those who need it most -- as well as honors your own personal legacy. The gift of an Ethical Will is literally the "gift that keeps on giving" as your wisdom -- and your love -- is passed on for generations to come.

Nancy Cronk is a public speaker, writer, and Inter-faith Funeral Pre-Planning Specialist in Denver, CO, who would love to speak to your organization and provide attendees with a free funeral pre-planning guide. She can be reached at 720-341-8964.

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