What is an Ethical Will?

When people are asked why estate planning is important, they frequently say it’s because estate planning allows them to pass on the wealth they’ve worked hard for to those they love most. This is a perfectly reasonable answer, but not all the things we value and pass on are tangible. Many people would say that the most important things they have to leave their family are their love and deeply-held values. For those people, preparing an ethical will is something worthy of consideration.

An ethical will, also sometimes called a legacy letter, is a formal way to transmit those beliefs and values we hold most dear to those who are important to us. We may hope that our children, especially, internalize our values simply from being around us, hearing our words, and observing our actions. Even if they do, however, taking the time to commit those values to writing can be an enduring gift to loved ones.

Ancient Tradition, Modern Applications

The ethical will has its roots in Judeo-Christian tradition, and ethical wills were used in medieval times to pass directions from father to son or teacher to disciple. The tradition, while ancient, is far from outdated. In our fast-paced, information-saturated world, people can’t assume their loved ones will automatically know what is most important to them.

There are many modern applications for the ethical will. Making an ethical will or leaving a legacy letter is especially important for parents of young children. Such a document can serve as a touchstone for children’s future guardians; if parents were to pass away, the ethical will could provide the guardians with guidance as to how the parents wanted the children to be raised. For the children, who may be too young to have many memories of their parents, an ethical will provides a treasured glimpse into the essence of who they were. For adult children, an ethical will can provide concrete reassurance of their parents’ love and forgiveness for any hurts over which the children might feel guilt.

An ethical will has value for the person leaving it, too. Writing down our values, our beliefs, and our hopes for our children’s future helps us to clarify those things in our own minds. As a result, we may choose to make changes to the way we live so that our actions are more aligned with our values. For instance, someone who writes about the importance of family ties in an ethical will might realize he needs to spend less time at the office, and more with his children.

Integrating an Ethical Will with an Estate Plan

An ethical will or legacy letter isn’t a legal document, and you don’t need an attorney to write one. However, reviewing your ethical will with your attorney can be helpful in preparing or updating your overall estate plan. Your ethical will may indicate causes or charities close to your heart that you might wish to support through traditional estate planning. You may also choose to include bequests of treasured items in your last will and testament whose personal significance is expressed in your ethical will.

If you would like to learn more about ethical wills and the part they can play in your overall estate plan, contact the experienced estate planning and probate attorneys at Davis Schilken at 303-670-9855 to arrange a consultation at one of our two locations in The Denver Tech Center and Golden, Colorado. We look forward to working with you.