Ethical Wills Revisited 2019: Beyond dollars and cents, what you really want to communicate to your loved ones

Wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and advance directives for health care are all legal documents which deal with your assets and your health. These are important estate planning documents, and you should work with an experienced and competent estate planning attorney to create them. However, there is another important estate planning document, which is not a legal document, and which can only be created by you: an “Ethical Will.” We have discussed the topic of Ethical Wills in past editions of our Newsletter. However, since then, we have discovered some great new resources to help you with creating your own Ethical Wills.

An Ethical Will is a statement from you (in writing, on video, in your voice, or in some combination) to your loved ones. It is intended to provide your loved ones a sort of non-economic inheritance, in addition to any assets which you may leave them after your death. The Ethical Will allows you to let your friends and family know what you believe to be important in life, and to provide them with the benefit of your experiences and acquired knowledge.

In preparing an Ethical Will, you may want to imagine that you have only a very short time left to live, and then to try to imagine what values, philosophy, or other information you would want to tell your loved ones before your death. The topics covered in an Ethical Will can be as broad or as narrow as you like, and can touch on moral issues, religious issues, what is most important to you, what you have learned in going through life, who impacted your life, family history, significant decisions you made in your life and their effect, how you wish to be remembered, the legacy you wish to leave, your hopes and dreams for your loved ones, and anything else you feel is important. You can prepare a single Ethical Will or prepare a separate Ethical Will for each of your loved ones. The Ethical Will(s) should generally be kept with your other estate planning documents so they can be located after your passing. Of course, you are free to give them to your loved ones while you are living as well, which could provide even more benefits.

As a caveat, you should generally avoid trying to explain the reasons behind your estate distribution plan in an Ethical Will, since you could inadvertently increase the risk of a challenge by doing so. You should also remember that your Ethical Will is not the place to discuss how your wealth should be handled or distributed after your death – that is the purpose of your legal documents. The Ethical Will should focus on other issues, such as morals, values, important life lessons, family histories, fond memories, hopes and dreams.

How should your Ethical Will be prepared? An Ethical Will can be as simple as a written letter or a recording of your spoken words, a simple video created with your phone, or as complex as a full-fledged video production. While even a simple, written Ethical Will can provide tremendous benefits for your loved ones, the addition of seeing you and hearing voice can really add to these benefits.

While Ethical Wills have a long history in some cultures, most people never take the time to prepare these incredibly powerful documents. However, the benefits of Ethical Wills can be tremendous. Think how your loved ones will feel when they are effectively able to hear you speak to them while they are still mourning your loss. Finally, think what the results could be if you prepared and provided an Ethical Will to your loved ones during your lifetime – to enable you to see the results and stimulate some potentially wonderful family interaction.

To help you in preparing your own Ethical Wills, you should consider these varied resources:

1. TEDx Talk by Scott Zucker which is located here: Scott is what we call a “mensch,” a person of high integrity and honor. Scott is a lawyer friend of ours and an all-around great person. His parents died prematurely, and he decided that he needed to communicate with his own children in case this should ever happen to himself. The answer was the preparation of Ethical Wills. Of course, when you are a giving type person who wants to make the world a better place, you need to help the many rather than just the few. So, Scott has now written and given speeches on this important topic. His recent TEDx Talk is a must see for anyone interested in this topic.

2. Susan B. Turnbull and her staff at Personal Legacy Advisors ( provide education and assistance in preparing Ethical Wills. The company’s helpful resources include a book entitled The Wealth of Your Life. This book was written by Susan Turnbull, and it provides an excellent step-by-step guide for creating Ethical Wills. We have been giving a copy of her book to our clients over the last several years.

3. The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow, serves as an excellent example of both an Ethical Will and the benefits which can come from sharing one’s Ethical Will during one’s lifetime. When I first read this book (which is an easy read of about 100 pages), I thought it was an Ethical Will on steroids. I do not believe Randy actually knew what an Ethical Will was, and he never mentioned this term, but he set out to communicate to his young children when he had terminal cancer. Before we started giving our clients, Susan B. Turnbull’s “how to” book, we gave our clients a copy of this book. We felt it could broaden a client’s mind as to what was possible in preparing their own Ethical Will.

4. Jim Barkley at Sonant History ( is a “professional personal historian” who helps his clients prepare audio and video Ethical Wills. The audio Ethical Wills allow his clients to tell their stories with professional recording, guidance and editing, which can be passed down to loved ones. Jim can also help clients put together video to go with the audio – slide shows of favorite photos and video recordings.

5. For a Wikipedia discussion of Ethical Wills, see:

We have been recommending for years that our clients prepare Ethical Wills. We can tell you from experience that, when an Ethical Will is read after a client’s death, the effect is usually quite profound. The client’s loved ones are left with wonderful thoughts about their loved one and often feel even closer to the client as a result. The results for clients who are willing to share their Ethical Wills during their lifetimes can be even greater, and these clients get the added joy of seeing the results in person.

If we can assist you in thinking through your own Ethical Will or share our expertise with you, please call us today to set up an appointment – 678.720.0750.

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