Jay Robinson is having the time of his life, in what he describes as the “prime of his life.” The 65-year-old accountant has a standing date every Saturday with his three young grandsons, and all four “boys” relish their time together. Given Robinson’s good health, it seems likely that the good times will continue to roll for quite some time. Yet recently, Robinson began setting aside time to compose letters to his grandsons, which will one day be given to them as their grandfather’s ethical will.
How to Write an Ethical Will
Some strategies & resources to help you get started.
What’s an Ethical Will?
The ethical will tradition goes back to biblical times, when patriarchs would pass on their personal values to their children. Today – thanks to a growing awareness that one’s legacy involves more than material goods – word of ethical wills is spreading. And while parents still write of the values by which they hope their children will live, ethical wills are increasingly used as a vehicle to express love, offer advice and provide family history that might otherwise be lost through the generations.
For Jay Robinson, the stimulus to write was twofold:
• to create a record for his grandsons of their times together, and
• to share with them some of his own life-learnings.
Robinson acknowledges that as his grandsons enter their teen years, it’s likely that they won’t be seeking out their “Poppy” quite so often, and they may not be eager to hear his advice. But he knows, too, that a bit further down the road, as the boys mature, they’ll want to know more about him, and possibly learn from him. Thus, he plans to make his ethical will a part of each grandson’s high school graduation gift.
He’s writing about things that his boys aren’t ready to hear about – like the layoff that turned into the blessing of a solo career, and the joys of finding the right life partner – with the hope that, no matter what the future brings, his words can help guide them through it.
Unexpectedly, in the process of revealing himself to his future readers, Robinson has found that he’s also learning about himself.
This is not an unusual discovery, according to Dr. Barry Baines, author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Dr. Baines, a HMO medical director and CEO of The Legacy Center, has become a “guru” of ethical wills, speaking about the subject all around the country and even hosting a resource-rich Web site, www.ethicalwill.com. In his experience, it’s the 50- and 60-somethings who most often reap the greatest benefits from their ethical wills.
“At this point,” Baines notes, “we’ve had a chance to accumulate life experiences and convert this into wisdom. And with plenty of life still ahead, we can not only pass our wisdom on, but we can use it ourselves, going forward.”
Overall, Baines observes, once people start to document who they are, what they’re about and their dreams, they often start to live their lives more reflectively.
-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt">In Robinson’s case, the process rekindled memories of his activist past, and he’s begun seeking out opportunities to engage his grandsons in socially-conscious activities, like the Walk for Hunger.
“My ethical will was a wake-up call to action on some values that are very important to me,” he says. “It’s not too late to show my grandchildren, by my own example, that we can all contribute to improving our world.”
Preserving Your Family’s “Wealth”
For some, an ethical will can be a vehicle for maintaining or even repairing family ties. As Harvard University’s senior philanthropic adviser, Charles W. Collier has been an up-close observer of the uses and effects of wealth in multigenerational families. And by “wealth,” Collier doesn’t focus on finances, but on the additional dimensions of what he calls “family wealth”:
• human capital – the family’s individual members;
• intellectual capital – the way family members learn, communicate, and make joint decisions; and
• social capital – how family members engage with society at large.
Based on his 25 years of experience guiding a wide variety of families in planning for the future, Collier has found that families that enhance human, intellectual and social capital are more likely than others to produce great human beings, and continue as a cohesive group that enjoys meeting and being together for more than one generation.
The key to enhancing this “family wealth” is communication, Collier says. “The most successful families tell and retell the family’s important stories, and include mentor-like relationships between the generations. An ethical will is a great tool to accomplish both of these ‘best practices.’”
Unlike the “last will and testament,” which disposes of one’s financial assets, ethical wills are not legally binding and are not typically prepared by attorneys. Nonetheless, a growing number of estate lawyers are recommending that their clients put their own thoughts on paper, to supplement and, in some cases, to clarify, their legal wills.
A common situation where an ethical will can help is where a will distributes differing portions among children and grandchildren. According to trust and estates lawyer Diane Currier, an explanation of the reasons for such variations can help avoid misunderstandings and resentment.
“A legal will provides the who, what, when and how of an estate plan,” Currier says. “An ethical will can provide the ‘why.’ And while a properly executed estate plan can help preserve one’s wealth, helping beneficiaries understand the ‘why’ can help preserve family harmony.”
How Does It Feel?
The most immediate benefit of mapping out your ethical will is that it feels good. Carol Glickman is a 50-something widow who found herself recounting the stories of her own parents, who were Holocaust survivors. And because Glickman’s infant granddaughter had no firsthand knowledge of her grandfather, Carol wrote a lot about her husband as well.
“All these people and events came to life for me as I wrote,” she reports. “It felt wonderful – both the remembering, and the realization that later generations will ‘know’ me and those I’ve loved.”
Glickman emphasizes that she felt uplifted and empowered by the exercise. The self-reflection it inspired led her to realize her many personal assets, particularly the legacy of strength and survival that were hers to pass on to future generations.
An ethical will is a gift to both the giver and the receiver, and the process of writing one is fundamentally optimistic. It helps us clarify our values and put life in perspective. As Dr. Baines explains, “It means we’re part of something larger than ourselves and our lifetimes. It’s an affirmation that there is a future, even if it’s a future without me.”
Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, by Dr. Barry Baines, M.D., Perseus Publishing, 2002.
Ethicalwill.com – Dr. Baines’ resource-rich Web site, includes a list of professional ethical will consultants among other things.
So That Your Values May Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, by Rabbi Jack Reimer, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991
How to Write an Ethical Will: Some strategies & resources to help you get started.
Joy Elbaum is a freelance writer and lawyer with wide ranging interests