The Ethical Will: For Passing on Values, Not Valuables


The Ethical Will – For Passing on Values, Not Valuables – by Alen Bergman

It is fairly incredible how many times in my work as a personal historian I have heard, “I wish I had …” and “I should have.” These comments are made by adult children who have lost one or both parents and now tremendously regret not learning more about their parents’ lives when they had the opportunity. Countless important questions about our loved ones go unasked.

I share this woe, having never asked my dad what it was like being in battle during his World War II U.S. Navy service or inquiring why my great-grandmother got divorced in an era when it was scandalous to do so. That ship has long sailed.

While we may have failed to capture part of our parents’ history, we can still preserve a piece of ourselves for our loved ones. This is accomplished with an ethical will.

The ethical will is a tool available to communicate “down” to our children and grandchildren, a spouse, or friends how much we love them, and pass on our beliefs, life lessons, legacy, wishes, and personal philosophy. The ethical will is a vehicle for passing forward our values rather than our valuables. Unlike a legal will, it does not involve any tangible assets, nor is it a legal document.

In fact, the ethical will can take many forms. Also known as a legacy letter, it is most often created as a written document, but it can be manifested as an audio or audio-visual file, too. Some individuals draft it as a single side of one sheet of paper, while others may write the equivalent of a short book. The ethical will sometimes constitutes the final chapter of the life stories I author. The rule is there are no rules.

The ethical will reflects the voice of the heart and the sage wisdom attained from years of experience.

Some examples of ethical will prompts include:

  • The most important things I learned from my parents
  • Why I fell in love with your mother/father
  • My world changed with your birth because
  • The most valuable life lessons I can pass on
  • It is essential always to remember
  • I am most grateful for and most proud of
  • I would like to ask forgiveness from
  • If you encounter difficult times, I hope you will
  • If I could live my life over

Not surprisingly, for many of us, communicating these items via the ethical will is far easier than doing it verbally in person. The original ethical wills, said to date back some 800 years, were transmitted only orally.

Notably, the ethical will does not necessarily need to be opened or shared following death. Since it has no legal ramifications, it can be viewed while the writer is very much alive and well. Some people update their ethical will on an annual basis.

The ethical will may be the perfect vehicle to bequeath your love, values, wisdom, and guidance. Do not let this opportunity go unfulfilled.

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Alan Bergman is a personal historian-biographer. He is a senior and the founder of Life Stories Preserved LLC. Alan can be reached via email at ab@LifeStoriesPreserved.net.