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The Ethical Will Or Family Love Letter: How To Transfer More Than Money To Future Generations

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The Covid-19 pandemic caused many people to re-assess their values and priorities. This accelerated a trend in which people wonder if there is something more than money and property they can leave when putting together their estate plans.

You can leave valuable items other than wealth and assets, and more and more people are adding this element to their estate plans. Many estate planners report higher client interest in leaving something more meaningful and intangible as part of their legacies.

You can pass on values, philosophy, family history, and other insights to your children and grandchildren. Some people simply want to make a final expression of love and gratitude to family members and perhaps other loved ones.

The long-established tool for doing this has many names but is most often known as either an ethical will or a family love letter. You also might see it referred to as a legacy letter, life letter, heart will, love will, and ending note.

In the traditional version, there is one document or presentation addressed to the entire family, but you also can have separate messages for specific individuals or groups. Some people want theirs presented to everyone at a funeral or memorial service. Recently, I saw one in the form of an obituary written by the deceased and published in the local newspaper.

Though most people initially ask their estate planners about an ethical will, it really isn’t an official part of the estate plan. There won’t be a legal document that is binding or enforceable.

The ethical will springs from Jewish tradition. Examples of ethical wills are in the Old Testament (Genesis Chapter 49; 1 Kings Chapter 2) and other Hebrew literature. It is meant to be instructional, philosophical, informative, uplifting, and perhaps at times humorous. Since it is a personal communication, the elements and tone depend on you.

The format of an ethical also is flexible. Of course, historically they are written, usually in the form of a letter.

Technology opens up many possibilities. You can speak directly to loved ones in an audio or video version. Though the traditional version involves the deceased directly addressing survivors, today it’s possible for many people to create a slide show or a movie. Use whatever format you are comfortable with, or multiple formats if you want. 

The presentation can be prepared by or with the help of a professional. There’s a group of professionals called personal historians that specialize in helping with these communications. If you prefer an audio or video format, you might work with a person or business that specializes in that format. Or you might need only the assistance of someone who can help you manage the technology.

Some ethical wills are simple and straightforward. They’re intended to encourage or remind loved ones of one or two things. In some, a father simply encourages his children to visit and call their mother regularly and look after her needs. Or a parent might explain why during life special attention was directed to the needs of one of the siblings and encourage the others to continue that practice. Some ethical wills encourage the children to continue in the parents’ faith or other practices and raise their children in the same way.

Others cover more ground, such as personal or family history and perhaps philosophy and values. These versions can take significant time to prepare and polish until the final product is satisfactory. Some advisors recommend going online and reading commencement addresses to stimulate thoughts and get an idea of formats.

Sometimes an ethical will is part of the regular will and might even be integrated to the point that there isn’t a clear definition between the legally binding sections and the ethical will portions. Most estate planners discourage this approach.

Preparing an ethical will or a family love letter that reflects your personality and philosophy in this way can be a good gift for your loved ones. Remember it doesn’t have to be in writing. Some people create an outline of their thoughts and simply talk to a camera.

An ethical will gives you a chance at a little bit of immortality. You might be remembered for what is actually important to you instead of the random memories of others.

Research shows that people like stories and are more likely to learn and be persuaded by stories. Stories about your life or your ancestors’ lives are likely to give the next generations a better understanding of who you are and the values you are trying to pass on. Stories also give them a tool to pass the message to the generations after them.

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