Ethical Wills

September 27, 2010
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An ethical will reflects the “voice of the heart.” Think of it as a love letter to your family. Every ethical will is as unique as the person writing it. After reading a number of ethical wills, there are common themes that run through many of them. Older ethical wills contained burial instructions, blessings, and personal and spiritual values.

Here’s a partial list of common themes seen in more modern ethical wills:

  • Important personal values and beliefs
  • Important spiritual values
  • Hopes and blessings for future generations
  • Life’s lessons
  • Love
  • Forgiving others and asking for forgiveness

There are many personal reasons for writing an ethical will. Here are some of them:

  • We all want to be remembered, and we all will leave something behind
  • If we don’t tell our stories and the stories from whom we come, no one else will and they will be lost forever
  • It helps you identify what you value most and what you stand for
  • By articulating what we value now, we can take steps to insure the continuation of those values for future generations
  • You learn a lot about yourself in the process of writing an ethical will
  • It helps us come to terms with our mortality by creating something of meaning that will live on after we are gone
  •  It provides a sense of completion in our lives

Here are some occasions when you might consider writing an Ethical Will. 

Betrothed Couples:

Today, the overall divorce rate in our society has “declined” to about 50%.  However, 70% of divorces occur within the first 5 years of marriage. An ethical will can help a couple to clearly understand each other’s values, and it can contribute to building a foundation of common values for the marriage. Many clergy are attending to this issue today.

Expectant and new parents:

It’s been said that children don’t come with a “user’s manual.” An ethical will at this stage will provide a foundation of common values upon which to approach childrearing. In addition, an ethical will can help in conflict resolution by increasing the understanding of each other’s important values.

Divorcing Couples:

Even in divorce, an ethical will can provide some security and reassurance for the children involved, by providing tangible evidence what’s important to their parents. It’s even possible that in a divorce situation, the “blame factor” might be minimized.

Growing families:

For growing families, and ethical will can be used to teach values to our children. By writing these values on a document, it has the potential to improve communication with our children.


Provides the opportunity to launch adult children and enter into a new relationship phase.

Middle age and beyond:

This is one life stage that writing an ethical will is most fitting. It is an opportunity to harvest our life experiences, convert these experience into wisdom, and allow for the fulfillment of the responsibility of passing this wisdom on to future generations

End of Life:

If energy and time permits, writing an ethical will at the end of life adds a transcendent dimension to our lives by providing a link to future generations. In essence, you are providing your legacy of values and beliefs for a time when you are gone.
How to Write an Ethical Will
Writing an ethical will may seem difficult. However, it can be viewed as the writing of a love letter to your family. Ethical Wills can include personal and spiritual values, hopes, experiences, love, and forgiveness. It may well be one of the most cherished gifts you can give to your family.
Here are three basic approaches for creating your ethical will. 

Approach #1

Using an outline structure and a list of items to choose from. This is by far the easiest way to get started and it can build your confidence quickly. You can create a rough draft to work from in less than an hour.

Approach #2

Using guided writing exercises to help you create content for your ethical will.

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

    • Over time, write down ideas –a few words or a sentence or two about things like:
      • My beliefs and opinions
      • Things I did to act on my values
      • Something I learned from grandparents / parents / siblings / spouse / children
      • Something I learned from experience
      • Something I am grateful for
      • My hopes for the future
    • Write about important events in your life
    • Imagine that you only had a limited time left to live. What would you regret not having done?
    • Save items that articulate your feelings, e.g., quotes, cartoons, etc
    • Review what you’ve collected after a few weeks or months
    • Clump related items together — patterns will emerge
    • Revise and expand the related categories into paragraphs
    • Arrange the paragraphs in an order that makes sense to you
    • Add an introduction and conclusion
    • Put this aside for a few weeks and then review and revise

Approach #3

Starting with a blank sheet of paper.

This is the most open-ended approach.  Keeping a journal or diary is an excellent way to write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Over time, review what you’ve written.  Themes will emerge from which you can create a comfortable structure for your ethical will.

All of these approaches are covered comprehensively in the book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper (Second Edition) by Barry K. Baines, MD, www.ethical
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