“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”
An Ethical Will is a letter on the meaning of the writer’s life for the benefit of themselves and others. It is a journey into memory to reveal the experiences that shaped the writer’s world view. The result is amalgam of ancestry, memoir and inspirational guide. It captures forever the writer’s place in history and enriches the lives of its readers. This deep human instinct to leave a footprint has ancient heritage. There are examples of Ethical Wills dating back thousands of years. The intent of an Ethical Will is not just to tell stories. The intent is to gift the reflections on these stories to loved ones.
Where does an Ethical Will fit in an Estate Plan?
An Ethical Will is a natural complement to a legal Will and an easy tool for Estate Planning lawyers to introduce. Storytelling is already an integral part of our practice. Client’s needs are wrapped in stories. The effective practice of law requires the ability to listen, be moved by and act upon these stories. Estate Planning particularly requires compassion. Clients share intimate details about their assets and family. I have always been fascinated by my client’s stories and make it my mission to get them told. Since 2006, I have been using the vehicle of an Ethical Will.
How Do You Write an Ethical Will?
The key to completing an Ethical Will is to write within a disciplined structure. The project is overwhelming and will be abandoned without one. I have developed a drafting system to get them completed quickly and easily, (available for download here). With this drafting tool and guidance for completion, the client writes the document themselves.
The discovery process is divided into four sections, with an introduction and conclusion. The categories are: significant memories, meaningful experiences, personal beliefs and future advice. Writing prompts and examples are provided. Only three pages are allowed for each section. This can be frustrating when memories are flowing, but it is essential the writer keep moving through the process. An Ethical Will is not a full history but rather a capsule of the writer’s essence, the moments that changed everything. In addition, the sections seamlessly connect as a whole. When the Ethical Will is complete the writer can return to the project and expand if they wish. However, experience has taught this precious document is often the only reflection the writer leaves.
What Value Does Writing an Ethical Will Add to Clients?
Most people move through life and death with little recognition. They absorb daily the lives of the rich, celebrated and notorious. They read, listen and voice the stories of others. In the pages of this document the writer takes center stage. Encouraged to write and given the tools to do so, clients feel validated and worthy. They know they have a legacy beyond their possessions and an Ethical Will is the perfect forum for preserving it. They instruct and inspire, heal and forgive, move and entertain with their stories. They are thrilled with the document and anxious to share it. They know they will be remembered and their stories will survive. They write their Ethical Will as a bequest for their families and find themselves the greatest benefactor.
The centuries old Ethical Will taps into a modern zeitgeist. Social media encourages sharing over secrecy and has made us comfortable with self-revelation. There has been explosive growth in story sharing radio programs that emphasize personal over professional style. The increasingly popular memoir of ordinary life elevates the commonplace over the extraordinary.
In my experience, everyone with a structure to stay on course and a safe environment to share, has surprising eloquence and power in their stories. These stories are as valuable as tangible assets and, as with legal documents, should be written before illness robs one of the ability to do so.
I recommend we all add the warmth of our voice to our formal documents by writing an Ethical Will. Everything you need to complete your Ethical Will is available for download here.