How will those we leave behind remember us? Will they know what was important to us? Will our children and grandchildren inherit our principles and our wisdom? Thinking about what type of legacy you’d like to leave often brings up these common questions. One way to ensure you pass down your values and beliefs to the next generation is to write something called an ethical will or legacy letter.
What’s an ethical will?
An ethical will is a document you can create that shares your values, memories, guidance, and advice with your loved ones and future generations. This document has origins in the Jewish tradition, and Jewish ethical wills are mentioned several times throughout the Bible. Ethical legacy letters also have ties to Islamic and Christian traditions. Although ethical wills are still a common and important part of Jewish culture, anyone can write an ethical will.
What's the difference between an ethical will and a legal will?
A legal will, or last will and testament, lays out who will inherit your money, property, and other assets. An ethical will gives you a chance to leave behind non-physical things such as wisdom and memories and also items that have no monetary value such as photos, family recipes, and other items of special meaning. This document can also include an explanation of the decisions you made in your legal will.
Ethical wills aren’t legal documents, and there are no rules on what you have to include. If you’d like to write your own, you get to decide what things you’ll share and pass down to the next generation.
What's the difference between an ethical will and a legacy letter?
Typically, an ethical will is addressed to your children and close family, whereas a legacy letter can be written to anyone you choose. Legacy letters and ethical wills are very similar documents — both provide you with the opportunity to leave a message for your loved ones when you’re gone.
How to write an ethical will
While trying to decide what ideas, lessons, and memories you want to pass on can feel overwhelming, it can help to simply start with a brainstorm. Here are five simple steps for writing your ethical will:
Brainstorm the things most important to you.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down all the ideas for information you may want to include in your ethical will. If you run out of time, set another timer. If you feel overwhelmed, step away and revisit the activity the next day, or whenever you feel inspired.
It’s up to you to decide what you write about, but the following questions might help you get started:
- What are your fondest memories?
- What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them? What lessons did you learn from these challenges?
- What or who had the most impact on your life and why?
- What are the most important life lessons you learned? How did you incorporate those learnings into your life?
- What advice would you like to give your children for navigating life?
- Are there any religious, cultural, or family traditions you’d like your loved ones to carry on and pass down?
- What hopes do you have for your loved ones?
- Do you have any favorite quotes or teachings you’d like to share?
- Are there any decisions you’ve made in your legal will that you’d like to explain further?
Keep a running list of what you'd like to include.
After you’ve gotten down the information you feel is most important to include, keep going back to your list to add new things you've remembered or encountered since your last brainstorm. This keeps the list fresh, living, and accurate.
Choose a format.
An ethical will doesn’t have to take a specific form or structure. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a written document. You could make a scrapbook, record a video, or write a song — whatever feels most comfortable and personal for you.
Show it to trusted friends or family.
If you choose, you might also get feedback from the people closest to you. Showing others might help spark new memories for you, or they might remember ideas you forgot.
Keep it with your end-of-life planning documents.
Be sure to file your ethical will alongside your other life documents, such as your legal will and advance care directives. Tell the people closest to you where they’ll be able to find it when the time comes.
It’s never too soon to start writing your ethical will. You can start jotting down memories, life lessons, and quotes at any age. View it as a living document that changes throughout your life. Revisit it often to add life lessons and new experiences as you live your life.
Ethical will examples
To help you get started, we’ve provided some examples for inspiration. Think about what you want your loved ones to remember about you and what is important to you. Remember to speak from your heart as you share your love.
An ethical will for your children
To my beloved children,
Being a parent to you was the biggest honor of my life. You brought me joy every day, and I’m so proud of you. Although I can’t be there with you anymore, there are some lessons I’d like to share with you to help you through this crazy adventure we call life.
· Always be kind. Everyone is fighting an inner battle you know nothing about.
· Don’t compare yourself to others. We’re all unique and have our own journeys. Everything will happen when it’s meant to.
· Family is everything. Always be there for one another.
· Laughter is the best medicine. There’s nothing a good giggle with those you love can’t make a little lighter.
· This too shall pass. No storm lasts forever, and you’ll come out the other side stronger and brighter.
I also have something to ask of you. I always loved our family hikes up to the lake. I’d love it if you could carry on this tradition in my honor, once a year. I’ll be right there with you.
Your ever-loving parent.
An ethical will for your spouse
My dearest [name],
I’m so sorry I can’t physically be there with you anymore but know that I’ll always be watching over you with love.
I wanted to thank you for making my life so happy. You’re the kindest, gentlest, funniest, and warmest person I’ve ever known, both inside and out.
My happiest memories of us were the nights spent down at Lucky’s, where we met. The first time I saw you, I remember thinking that something special was about to happen — and it did. I met the love of my life. And of course, there was the time you sang karaoke — how could I ever forget that? The ringing never left my ears (sorry, my love).
I know it will be hard adapting to life without me, but you’re so strong, and I know you’ll be ok. Please don’t shut yourself off — you have lots of wonderful people who care about you, so lean on them for support. And remember, things will eventually get better.
As a final parting gift, I’m leaving you my secret cookie recipe. I’m sorry you had to wait so long to get it, but I couldn’t have you upstaging my baking skills. But now, I want you to bake my cookies and think of me whenever you feel sad. And always remember that life is sweet.
All my love,
Planning for the end
If you’re looking to plan for the end of your life, we’re here to support you. Our end-of-life planning guide covers everything you need to think about, from the practical side of things to your legacy and saying goodbye.