Ethical Wills – You Don’t Have to Be Wealthy to Leave a Legacy

What, in the end, do we leave behind? Money? A house? Investments? All these are but fleeting and will come to nought. The only thing that lasts is the wisdom of a life – values, beliefs, lessons learned from life, dreams, and hopes for future generations. These things should be left to your children too – in an ethical will.

We all want to be remembered. And surely we will be, whether we leave a writing behind or not. Yet what will be remembered and for how long? How often do you search your memory for some saying of your grandfather’s? Or try to remember how your Uncle described his experience in the coal mines? Or in World War II? Don’t you wish you could read their words and tell their stories to your own children and grandchildren?

Psychologists point out that writing down your values also helps you to clarify them. It helps you to focus on what you value the most, how to cultivate it and preserve it for future generations. You learn a lot about yourself when you write an ethical will. You must subject you life to self-examination and face up to failures as well as successes. As Rabbi Rammer, editor of So That Your Values Live On puts it: “I have learned that ethical wills have the power to make people confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives. They can make people who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for.”

While ethical wills have gained wide popularity in recent years, they were originally a Jewish tradition, with roots in early Biblical times. Recall Moses’ address to the people before he died; Joseph’s blessings of his sons where he described their respective characters and their futures; and King David’s prayers for his son. Perhaps the most famous of ancient ethical wills is Moshe Nachmanides’ (Ramban’s) letter to his son called Letter for the Ages. There is also the letter of the Vilna Gaon written at age 27 giving his wife and mother instructions for the education of the children.

How do you go about writing an ethical will yourself? There are many useful books on the subject. One of the best known volumes is Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines. The author is a physician and hospice director. Baines defines an ethical will as “a vehicle for clarifying and communicating the meaning in our lives to our families and communities.” Baines discusses the history of the practice of leaving an ethical will, its enormous benefits to the dying and to their families, and how to make them.

Other resources are So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them by Jack Rammer and Nathaniel Stampfer, and Women’s Lives, Women’s Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations: Creating Your Own Spiritual-Ethical Will, by Rachael Freed.

Some legal scholars have objected to calling such a personal statement a “will” lest it confuse people and they think they do not need to write a real will which disposes of their property. Instead, some refer to it as a “Personal Legacy Statement,” but the term “Ethical Will” seems to have stuck.

Here’s a partial list of common themes seen in more modern ethical wills which are listed at Important personal values and beliefs, important spiritual values, hopes and blessings for future generations, life’s lessons, love, forgiving others and asking for forgiveness.

Humorist Sam Levenson wrote an “Ethical Will and Testament to His Grandchildren and to Children Everywhere”. Here it is as reprinted in So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them by Jack Rammer and Nathaniel Stampfer:

I leave you my unpaid debts. They are my greatest assets. Everything I own — I owe:

1. To America I owe a debt for the opportunity it gave me to be free and to be me.
2. To my parents I owe America. They gave it to me, and I leave it to you. Take good care of it.
3. To the biblical tradition I owe the belief that man does not live by bread alone, nor does he live alone at all. This is also the democratic tradition. Preserve it.
4. To the 6 million of my people and to the 30 million other humans who died because of man’s inhumanity to man, I owe a vow that it must never happen again.
5. I leave you not everything I never had, but everything I had in my lifetime: a good family, respect for learning, compassion for my fellow man, and some four-letter words for all occasions: words like help, give, care, feel, and love.
Love, my dear grandchildren, is easier to recommend than to define. I can tell you only that like those who came before you, you will surely know when love ain’t; you will also know when mercy ain’t and brotherhood ain’t.
The millennium will come when all the ain’t shall become ises and all the ises shall be for all, even for those you don’t like.
Finally, I leave you the years I should like to have lived so that I might possibly see whether your generation will bring more love and peace to the world than ours did. I not only hope that you will. I pray that you will.

An ethical will may be the most cherished and meaningful gift you can give to your family.