How to Create an Ethical Will

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can you write a column on ethical wills and how to make one? The attorney that made up my will recently suggested I write one as a tool to explain the intentions of my will, as well as express my thoughts and feelings, but I don’t know where to start.

Interested Senior

Dear Interested,

An ethical will — also referred to as a legacy letter — can be a valuable complement to your legal will, as well as a wonderful gift to your family or other loved ones. Here’s what you should know along with some tips to help you make one.

Ethical Wills

Unlike a last will and testament, which tells your loved ones (and the legal world) what you want them to have, an ethical will (which is not a legal document) tells them what you want them to know.

With an ethical will, you can share with your loved ones your feelings, wishes, regrets, gratitude and advice, as well as explain the elements in your legal will, give information about the money and possessions you’re passing on, and anything else you want to communicate.

Usually no more than a few pages, the process of writing an ethical will can actually be quite satisfying. But be careful that you don’t contradict any aspects of your legal will or estate plan.

And, if you’re having trouble with the writing, there are resources available to help you, or you can express yourself through an audio or video recording.

Where to Start

To craft an ethical will, start by jotting down some notes about what’s really important to you and what you want your loved ones to know. Take your time and remember that you’re not trying to write for the Pulitzer Prize. This letter is a gift of yourself written for those you love.

After you’ve gathered your thoughts you can start drafting your letter. You can also revise or rewrite it anytime you want. And for safekeeping, keep your ethical will with your other legal documents in a secure location but be sure your executor has access to it. A safe-deposit box or fireproof filing cabinet or safe in your home is a good choice.

Get Help

If you need some help, there are numerous resources available like Celebrations of Life (CelebrationsofLife.net), which offers how-to information and examples of ethical wills, along with a “Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper” book, and the Ethical Wills/Legacy Letters workbook that you can purchase for $16 and $10 respectively.

Another good resource is Personal Legacy Advisors (PersonalLegacyAdvisors.com), a company that offers ethical will writing classes and workshops, along with personalized services like coaching, editing, writing and/or audio or video recording your ethical will. Prices will vary depending on the services you choose. They also sell a do-it-yourself guidebook “The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will,” by Susan Turnbull for $24.

You also need to know that many people choose to share their ethical will with their family and friends while they’re still living so they can enjoy their reactions, while others think it should be read after their death. It’s up to you.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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