In days of yore, the last will and testament included statements of ethics. That was the testament part. Today’s wills mainly focus on the distribution of material goods the person is leaving behind – hopefully through a trust you’ve set up for your clients.
The ethical will articulates the deceased’s values, beliefs, wisdom, and parting thoughts. An ethical will can also provide thoughtful words from the deceased that can be read at his or her memorial service.
The writing of ethical wills is fostered in Judaism. When adults reach age 50, they are considered elders of the congregation who have enough life experiences to be able to dispense words of wisdom. Does anyone else find it sobering to think Baby Boomers are now of the age to be our wise elders?
Some synagogues have education programs that engage the 50-plus cohort to prepare their ethical wills by first studying Ecclesiastes. This book in the Hebrew Bible is famous for the phrase, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Passages in Ecclesiastes reflect on the meaning of life and our quest for happiness.
Participants write their own ethical wills and read them aloud to the congregation at a special Sabbath service. I’ve been present for the sharing of these documents, and they can be both profoundly moving and funny.
Even if a person has no children for whom to leave a legacy, writing an ethical will can help identify values. Family stories can be told so they won’t be lost forever. Loved ones can better understand and appreciate that person. The deceased can “leave them laughing” with a few favorite jokes.
What to write about? Some ideas: whatever passions stir the soul, why these passions are loved and what they give or teach. Important lessons learned in this lifetime, usually the hard way. What answers might this person have to the ultimate questions about life, the universe, and everything? (Thank you, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
Just how would this person like to be remembered? What three to five words make great descriptors of values or characteristics that could be expanded upon?
A family member or friend can read an ethical will at a funeral or memorial service. Ideally the deceased would let survivors know he or she wants it used before the death occurs.
Alternatively, individuals can take advantage of today’s digital video technology and record themselves reading their ethical wills. In this way, they can be present at their own funerals… but the family needs to know the video exists. Who knows, perhaps it could go viral on YouTube!
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, is author the award-winning book and host of the TV and radio shows A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. She recently earned the designation Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. She’s a pioneering Death Café hostess who starts the funeral planning conversation with a light touch on a serious subject. The A Good Goodbye TV series, now available on DVD, features an episode on estate planning with attorney Jim Plitz of AAEPA-member firm Morris, Hall and Kinghorn. Gail is an ongoing contributor to the AAEPA blog. Her website is http://agoodgoodbye.com/.
Academy Guest Blogger
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
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