Monday, February 12, 2018

Planning and Writing an Ethical Will

In the last blog, we discussed ways clients can protect their beneficiaries against their own flaws and weaknesses. For those clients who are concerned that their beneficiaries have not developed what they consider an appropriate value and belief system, it is often a good idea to take a holistic approach to estate planning and discuss how to pass on "values" as well as "valuables". An "Ethical Will" is an ideal vehicle for attempting, one last time, to impart important values to beneficiaries.

An Ethical Will is a document that details a client's core values and principles and communicates that philosophy to their beneficiaries. It is not a legally binding document, but rather an expression of the beliefs, opinions and cherished memories a person does not want forgotten. It may be something as simple as things you learned from your grandparents or other relatives that you want your children to remember. It may be a reminder of important events in your life or something you learned from an experience that you want to pass on. It might also be an expression of the values to which you hope your beneficiaries will aspire. Where appropriate, we should give these life lessons a higher priority in our estate planning discussions.
Jim Stovall, author of "The Ultimate Gift", a book in which the main character passes on 12 life lessons to his grandson, has said "Giving second- or third-generation family members resources without a mental, emotional and informational foundation is like giving them a loaded weapon without instruction or caution." More of my clients are starting to feel the same way. Similarly, a bank trust officer once said to me that he thought third-generation money was the most useless. The first generation worked hard to earn the money and the second generation saw how hard their parents worked for the money and had an appreciation of it. However, the third-generation had no idea how hard it was to earn, had no appreciation for the money, and therefore rarely put it to good use.
A simple Google search of the words "Ethical Will" will provide more than enough information and examples if one wants to consider writing an ethical will. It need not be something large or formal, and may begin with simple thoughts jotted down from time to time. The website,, suggests some tips for writing an Ethical Will, such as:
  1. Over time, write down ideas - a few words or a sentence or two about:
    1. Your beliefs and values
    2. Things you have done to act on your values
    3. Things you have learned from others
    4. Things you needed to learn from experience
    5. Things for which you are grateful
    6. Your hopes for the future
  2. Write about important events in your life
  3. Save items, such as quotes and cartoons, that articulate your feelings
  4. Review what you collected after allowing it to sit for a time and then arrange the information into an order that makes sense to you.
While an Ethical Will may be beyond what many clients are willing to prepare, it is becoming more critical that people pass along their values before they pass along their valuables. While leaving one's tangible estate is important, it can be even more impactful to leave an "intangible” legacy.

Al and Matt

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