As we age, we understand the importance of creating a legal will in order to leave our worldly possessions to the ones we love. Similarly, an ethical will (or legacy letter) enables us to communicate the values we hold most dear and pass them down through the generations.
Here, Tracie Bluse Ward, president and founder of Celebrations of Life, a Minneapolis-based company dedicated to helping individuals and families proactively create a meaningful and lasting legacy, shares her insight into this personal and spiritual document.
What Is an Ethical Will?
Simply put, an ethical will is a way to share your values, life lessons, hopes, and dreams with the people you love.
“An ethical will reflects the ‘voice of the heart,’ explains Ward. “Think of it as a love letter to your family.”
Key Components of an Ethical Will
“Historically, ethical wills have contained blessings, personal and spiritual values, and burial instructions,” says Ward. Here, she shares some common themes in modern ethical wills:
- Personal values and beliefs
- Spiritual values
- Hopes and blessings for future generations
- Life lessons
- Love and gratitude
- Forgiving others and asking for forgiveness
Though legacy letters are not life stories, Ward encourages writers to include life experiences to illustrate how each value became important to them. In that sense, your ethical will not look like anyone else’s.
“Every legacy letter is as unique as the person writing it,” she affirms.
How to Write an Ethical Will
Before you get started, it’s important to think about those to whom you’re writing.
“Most legacy letters are written to a specific audience (e.g., ‘My dear children and grandchildren,’) and they are often a few pages in length,” explains Ward.
Once you know your audience, Ward advises you take time to reflect on your life experiences so far, and “write about the core values that helped shape how you became uniquely you.”
Of course, the words you choose and the tone you use matter. “Your words should be written in loving, relatable, inspirational, and sincere language,” she says. At the same time, she warns against being boastful, overly aspirational, or heavy-handed—“which can feel like you may be dictating from the grave.”
When to Write an Ethical Will
While there’s no right or wrong time to start your legacy letter, certain situations lend themselves more naturally to the writing.
“Today, ethical wills are being written by people at turning points and transitions in their lives, and when facing challenging life situations,” says Ward.
And you certainly don’t have to be facing the end of life before you can pen a legacy letter. Ward recommends starting as early as midlife or at retirement, and adding to the document over time. The key is to start now.
“Everyone seems to agree that this work is important,” she says. “However, as humans, we find many excuses for putting it off until later in life, but then we are often too ill, too weak, or it’s too late.”
If you’re struggling to find the words, you can make use of guided writing exercises and even a virtual writing workshop through Celebrations of Life.
Senior living residents may also have the opportunity to work through the process with a trained facilitator.
“We bring this heartfelt work to senior living communities and hospice patients, which helps them summarize and share their life values and even improve their sense of vitality and purpose,” says Ward.
Though creating an ethical will requires an investment of time and energy, that investment can pay dividends for you as well as your loved ones.
“Writing a legacy letter has helped many people understand what is most important in their lives, and then live more intentionally going forward,” says Ward. “When it is shared, it can help families deepen generational bonds, improve relationships, and build resiliency.”
CHIME IN: What values and lessons would you share in a legacy letter?