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Writing an Ethical Will

Woman at a table writing a letter. A cup of coffee and vase of flowers are on the table.

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Unlike a last will and testament, which details how one’s possessions will be distributed, an ethical will outlines a person’s hopes, dreams and life lessons. It is not a legal document and it can take the form of a letter written to one’s children and grandchildren, or it could be a longer personal history.

The practice of creating ethical wills has existed for centuries. Since ancient times, people have shared stories, wisdom and blessings with future generations in hopes of leaving a personal legacy.

As a caregiver, encourage your loved one to put her beliefs and advice in writing. That way, you and others can benefit from her wisdom, and you’ll always remember what was most important to her.

Where to Start

Start the process by writing your own ethical will and sharing the experience with your loved one. Tell her that she might find the experience meaningful and that she might learn more about herself through the writing process.

To craft an ethical will, begin by jotting down notes about your beliefs, life lessons and hopes for the future. You might include details about your family history. You also may want to express gratitude toward family and friends or request forgiveness for past actions.

Record your thoughts and stories for a few weeks or months, and then use your notes to draft a letter or personal history. Then review and revise the document over time.

If you get writer’s block, books such as Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, M.D., and Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence contain writing prompts, which you and your loved one may find useful. For more inspiration, look to books such as So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them edited by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer, and The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours by Marian Wright Edelman. You’ll also find examples of ethical wills on Baines’ website. In addition, some community organizations offer ethical will workshops.

An ethical will is meant to be shared during one’s lifetime. Once you or your loved one have completed a final draft, share it with family and friends sooner rather than later. They’ll likely cherish it for years to come.

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