The concept of an ethical will is not a new one. Throughout recorded history, parents and mentors have passed on to their heirs words of wisdom, traditions, and even admonishments, that they too might become successful in their own life endeavors. While most of us already understand the importance of a legal will from an estate planning perspective, how does ethics factor into this picture?
On a fundamental level, ethics has to do with ordering, with putting good reason into human action, so that the resulting human life is lived to its fullest potential in pursuit of its goal. To live such a life, however, certain principles are necessary, including an understanding of the goals to be attained as well as tried and true methods of achieving them. Historically, principles like these have been passed on for generations to create a legacy of lives lived richly.
In general, a will represents an effort to bring order to the process of wealth transfer that must inevitably occur after death, ensuring that the wishes of the deceased are respected and property divided according to a legal process. Yet many lives contribute far more to this world than a collection of appreciable assets. Arguably, these other contributions are worth far more in the grand scheme of human history than any measure of material wealth. It was through recognition of this concept that the notion of an ethical will was born. If we pass on a monetary inheritance to our children and grandchildren in the hopes of bequeathing a brighter future, we should also consider how best to record and pass on our accumulated wisdom to the next generation.
So what exactly is an ethical will? In simple terms, an ethical will is a formal method of passing on a collection of life principles to one’s heirs. An ethical will can take a number of forms, such as a single document, video tape, or letters to individual family members. No matter what the medium, the ethical will intends to pass on to those left behind whatever wisdom the decedent wishes to impart. In recent years, the concept of an ethical will has gained credence in the legal and financial communities, inspiring the formation of such groups as Personal Legacy Advisors, LLC, a firm that provides specialized guidance and materials to clients wishing to compose an ethical will. Resources and examples are available and readily accessible online via a simple search on the topic.