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Write an Ethical Will to Bequeath What Is in Your Heart

4 reasons to create this document now

You no doubt are aware of the importance of having a will so your family will know who gets your diamond ring or how to divvy up your life savings. And hopefully you also realize you should have a living will, which spells out exactly how you want to be treated if you become too incapacitated to make decisions on your own.

Here's another document to add to the list: An ethical will.

See also: Wills and Trusts

Ethical Wills

Pat Molnar/Gallery Stock

This isn't a legal document. Instead, it's a sort of letter or document you write to your family and friends and share with them when you're still alive. It lays out "your values, blessings, life's lessons, and hopes and dreams for the future," according to Dr. Barry Baines, author of the book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.  

Here are four reasons you should write an ethical will if you don't already have one:

It's a healthy exercise. Writing about our lives can have a positively profound effect on our health, according to James W. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. "When people are given the opportunity to explore their deepest thoughts, especially during stressful times, it can be a wonderful coping mechanism," Pennebaker says. "They are happier; they sleep better." Hospice care professionals see a change in a patient's outlook after writing an ethical will. "I was amazed that something seemingly so simple could relieve a man's spiritual suffering," Baines said of one patient he observed. "It had a transcendent dimension when [the man] saw that he was going to be remembered."

It's a way to impart wisdom. Milton C. Smith, 73, an attorney from Seattle, was thinking about writing a memoir. The project was too daunting, however. "I thought that an ethical will would be a good way to at least get some of my information out to my family," Smith says.  He shared his ethical will with dozens of guests at his 70th birthday party. "My children appreciated having it and quietly thanked me for writing it," he says.

It fosters an intergenerational connection. The contents of an ethical will can affect future generations for years to come. As you read about a loved one’s values and priorities, you’ll better understand the family culture of which you are a part. "An ethical will provides the writer a way to live on after death in the hearts and minds of loved ones and friends," says Robert Flashman, a family resource management specialist at the University of Kentucky.

10 questions for writing an ethical will »

It lays out a moral road map. Writing an ethical will isn't only about reflections on the past. "It gave me a chance to state in a couple of pages what I stand for and what lies ahead for me, what are the things I want to focus on in my life as I get to the end of it," Smith says. "There was a sense of satisfaction, not so much about what I've accomplished, but what I have been able to stand for."