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Kevin O'Flaherty

This article will explain ethical wills and why someone might include one in their estate plan. We will cover the following topics:


  • What is an ethical will?
  • What is typically included in an ethical will?
  • Why do people write ethical wills?
  • Do I need an ethical will?


An estate plan usually contains a trust, last will and testament, power of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary descriptions, account information, and many other entries dealing with assets and where they should end up. But not many people think about the nonmaterial aspect of their legacy that can be transferred through an ethical will.


What is an Ethical Will?


An ethical will is a written statement that describes the testator’s history, value, and legacy that they want to be remembered when they are gone. For most, what’s written in their ethical will is meant for their children and grandchildren, but if their beneficiaries extend beyond their family, or for any other reason, an ethical will can be written for a larger audience. The process of writing an ethical will is a personal one, and it’s not legally necessary to include an ethical will in your estate plan. But more people include them in their estate plan as a way to convey what their life and the people in it really meant and how they hope certain traditions, activities, and relationships will continue without them.


What is normally included in an Ethical Will?


An ethical will doesn’t require the writer to cover specific topics customarily found in the last will and testament. Writing a meaningful ethical will can be awkward and challenging for those not accustomed to putting their thoughts and wishes into words. A good place to start is asking yourself why you want to write an ethical will. The answer will usually open up pathways to other sentiments you want passed onto your intended listeners.


You can also think of an ethical will as a mini autobiography. We’re not suggesting you write a book unless that’s what feels right to you, but if you want people to remember you the way you want to be remembered, then consider including the following items:


  • Your favorite authors or books;
  • Lessons you learned from your friends and family that you want to pass on;
  • People that had an impact on your life and why;
  • What you respect about important people in your life;
  • Traditions you enjoy, and you hope to continue;
  • Causes that were important to you in your life;
  • Wishes for your friends, children, grandchildren, grandchildren, business, etc.
  • Pretty much anything else you want to convey.


Why do People Write Ethical Wills?


The process of writing an ethical will can be very cathartic; it enables you to communicate your personal story to your family. An ethical will can serve as a book of accomplishments, life lessons, and stories for future generations. While still alive, writing an ethical will is a great exercise in self-reflection and self-improvement, even if you feel your life hasn’t been particularly grand or positive. You can also use an ethical will to distribute personal property with little financial value, such as recipes, heirlooms, family photographs, etc. But be sure something listed in your ethical will doesn’t conflict with another document of your estate plan.


Do I Need an Ethical Will?


From a legal standpoint, no. If you have the correct documents in your estate plan that cover all your assets, convey your best interests, identify your beneficiaries, and name your powers of attorney, you should be covered. But, the inclusion of an ethical will could help resolve any ambiguous discrepancies that arise in your estate plan. If your beneficiaries disagree on an aspect of your last will and testament, your ethical will might contain further evidence of your intention and wishes. Writing may not be for everyone, but nearly everyone can benefit from writing an ethical will, even if it’s just a few sentences.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.


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