More Than Money
Issue #32

Passing the Torch: The Great Wealth Transfer

Table of Contents

“Ensuring Your Legacy”

Ethical Wills: What Are They? Why Have One?

By Susan Turnbull

When you think about the wealth of your family, the first thing you might think about is your bank account. But what other kinds of wealth do you have? Whatever your financial bottom line, you also have a wealth of experiences and values to pass on.
An ethical will is a non-legal document that provides a means to bequeath this non-material wealth. Ethical wills are usually written in the form of a letter and give you the opportunity to answer this question: What do I really want my loved ones to know and have in writing, forever? This might start off as an expression of love, and could include discussion of topics such as marriage, education, spiritual beliefs, and money. Ethical wills can be a great vehicle for sharing your personal experiences and family stories, expressing the "glue" that holds past, present, and future generations of your family together.
Writing an ethical will is a tradition that dates to medieval times. Each will is a unique reflection of its author and the time in which it is written. As author, you will be the first beneficiary of this reflective and inspiring process. What you will create is a celebration of your life to date in an intimate letter that can always be updated. It can be written on your own or you may choose to work with a consultant who can provide a structure to follow.
Drawing up an ethical will means that you can be sure that nothing is left unsaid. Ethical wills are valuable for every family, but here are some examples of how they can serve as important complements to legal documents:

  • You sold the family business that your father started and your children will get the proceeds. You can use your ethical will to tell them about how the business started and what it meant to your father and you.
  • Your grandchildren will inherit your insurance policy when they turn 21. Do you want them to know where the money came from; how you managed money when you were a young adult; what you hope they do with it? You can use your ethical will to talk to your grandchildren about the money.
  • You've decided to leave most of your estate to philanthropic causes. You can use your ethical will to explain the values that led you to this decision.
  • You have a disabled child for whom you have set up a trust. Do you want to say something about the emotional care of the child?

An ethical will gives you a place to put all the things that have no place in a regular will.

Susan Turnbull ( www.your ) is a former journalist and professional writer who has made ethical wills her specialty.

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