You have lived a long and full life and you believe you have learned some important life lessons as a result. If you want to share the benefits of these lessons—essentially, your traditions, morals, values and ethics—with your loved ones after your death, you might consider doing so with an ethical will.

What is an Ethical Will?

An ethical will is a bit of a misnomer in that the drafter can address matters that have nothing at all to do with ethics. Sometimes called legacy letters, ethical wills are similar to an asset distribution will, otherwise called a last will and testament, except that ethical wills distribute things that generally have no objective financial value.

Ethical wills have a long tradition among certain religious groups or cultures with a rich storytelling history. However, ethical wills are also popular among lay persons and may be created for any reason. 

The person creating the ethical will—the testator—typically does so because they want to share their heartfelt thoughts, celebrate their life or articulate their hopes and dreams for future generation.

What Can Be Included in an Ethical Will?

Because an ethical will is not a legally binding document for the people to whom it is addressed, they typically will discuss assets that are not legal in nature. These assets are typically non-quantifiable or not financially valuable to anyone outside of the family.  Some examples include:

  • Photographs;
  • Recipes;
  • Family rites and traditions;
  • Genealogy and family histories;
  • Stories explaining why certain bequeathed items were important to the testator; and/or
  • Significant births, events or deaths

What are the Requirements of an Ethical Will?

The prevailing intention of the creator is to have the will last many generations. Because there are no legal requirements for creating the ethical will, it can be as long or as short as you want it to be, you can put into it as much time as you believe you need to communicate your heartfelt reflections to your loved ones, and you can use whatever structure you see fit to accomplish your purpose.

As such, testators can format (books, videos, recordings, poems etc.) it in whatever way they see fit. Importantly, testators should consider what technologies or media are available at the time of the creation of the ethical will and whether the will can survive for generations in the format chosen.

But, because an ethical will does not devise or leave details about personal items or other things of value, that means it cannot be declared invalid or void by the probate court. If you plan on your ethical will containing instructions about who receives property (real or personal), then you should make sure that the information is clearly laid out in your actual will that is regulated by law.

When Should You Start Your Ethical Will?

Because an ethical will is not the same as a last will and testament, you should not wait until later in life to start one. You might find that your traditions and values evolve over time and might influence the final version of the ethical will that you decide to leave.

Memories also fade so it is important to start earlier in life. As well, ethical wills are often contemplative and reflective so an ethical will can always be considered a work in progress.

Why Leave an Ethical Will?

The simplest reasons for leaving an ethical will is because you believe you have something important to share with the next generation and you want some sense of control over your legacy. As well, some people find that creating an ethical will helps them find value in the life they have lived and helps them prepare for death.

What are the Key Differences Between an Ethical Will and a Last Will and Testament?

If you have any real or personal property that you want distributed to specific individuals or according to your unique instructions, it is important to leave a last will and testament clearly explaining your intentions. Otherwise leaving your intentions to chance can lead to problems for your loved ones that could easily have been avoided by legally signalling your intentions.

The last will and testament has certain legal requirements depending on which state you live in. Those requirements may relate to what form (oral versus written) it may take, who can witness it, who can serve as executor, what types of assets may be distributed, and how it may be enforced.

Failing to follow your individual state’s requirements for creating a legal will can have grave consequences for the intended beneficiaries. It is clear to see that a last will and testament has dire legal consequences if the will is not properly created.

Conversely, an ethical will is not always in contemplation of death and is not a legal method for ensuring the distribution of personal and real property. Further, the ethical will is not a legal document, and as such, there is no legal penalty for failing to follow its contents.

Moreover, while an ethical will can be a good way to explain why certain assets are important to the testator, the testator should strive to avoid using the ethical will to explain why certain beneficiaries are receiving certain assets. Doing so can unwittingly lead to a challenge to the last will and testament.

Finally, although there are no legal requirements for the ethical will, you still should keep it in a safe place, perhaps with your other legal documents. You have spent valuable time putting the ethical will together, it is important that your loved ones have access to it when you are ready.

Do I Need an Attorney to Write an Ethical Will?

An ethical will can be drafted by any one at any time so you do not need the services of an estate lawyer. The main concern for an ethical will is that you leave it in a secure place or give instructions as to where it can be found in the event of your death.