Business and Family Communications

THE ETHICAL WILL: Have You Considered Doing One?

Published: 2009 08 17 | Views: 1918

I wonder how many of you reading this article even know what an ethical will is.  My strong hunch is that there are very few although I would imagine that every one of you knows what a legal will is. 

An ethical will is a letter from an individual typically addressed to his or her next-of-kin that bequeaths a spiritual or philosophical legacy.  It differs from a legal will in that it bequeaths values rather than money or other assets. 

For parents who have worked during their lives at passing on their values to their children and grandchildren, there might be no need for an ethical will.  For others, one might suggest that it is never too late.  In fact, at the end of the day an ethical will could well turn out to be the only tangible evidence for succeeding generations of what the author stood for in his or her life.  Looked at that way, it is at least as important as the legal will. 

Another benefit of an ethical will is that you don’t have to spend money on a lawyer to have it done.  There is no prescribed format for an ethical will.  According to an American publication entitled So That Your Values Live On – Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, possible subjects include:

  • The important lessons learned during your life.
  • People and causes for which you feel a sense of responsibility.
  • Mistakes in your life you hope your children will avoid.
  • Your definition of true success.
  • Your hopes for loved ones’ futures regarding family unity, ethical conduct, charity, or business relationships.
  • Favourite sayings or stories.
  • Expressions of gratitude, hope or faith.

While the ethical will can and usually should be done by a person alone with a computer or pad of paper, there can be instances where outside help might be appropriate.  For example, those who are mentally or physically incapable of doing it on their own might wish to have a loved one or someone else assist in drawing it up.  Another example comes from a company based in Montreal called Memoirs Productions that specializes not only in writing ethical wills for individuals but also in writing corporate ethical wills and even producing videos for patriarchs and matriarchs of family businesses.

So basically the sky is the limit in terms of how one wishes to pass on a spiritual or philosophical legacy.  The point is that people who wish to leave something tangible behind other than money and assets should be aware and thoughtful of this concept.  Perhaps the best way to start is by googling “ethical wills” and take it from there. 

One word of caution.  Nothing in this article should be taken to suggest that one should place a higher priority on doing an ethical will over a professionally-done legal will.  Legal wills are essential to ensure that your wishes are carried out at a minimum of expense and aggravation to your next-of-kin.  The ethical will is something that should be done once the legal will is properly done and looked after.  Make sure to look after the basics first.


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