A Legacy More Valuable Than Money – Your Ethical Will

By Chris Hostetler

This year has been very difficult for me, as I have dealt with the deaths of several dear clients and a family member. I also currently have several clients and close friends facing terminal illnesses. Confronted with so many end-of-life situations at once has reminded me of the importance of preparing an ethical will (in addition to the recommended legal estate documents).

You may already understand how a last will and testament determines what happens after you die – who inherits your possessions, who will take care of your children, etc. – these are critically important matters that must be addressed. And in addition to your will, there are other legal documents that you should consider preparing, such as trust documents, powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, among others.

But the legal documents do not pass on the essence of who you are. If you want to build a legacy that includes more than your personal and financial assets, the good news is you can easily send the right messages using an ethical will.

Sometimes also called a “legacy letter”, an ethical will is any message that shares your personal values with your loved ones after you are gone. This is NOT a legal document, so you don’t need anybody’s help to create an ethical will, and there are no rules.

Now you may be wondering, “Why is a financial advisor writing about ethical wills? What does this have to do with financial planning?” The answer is simple: writing an ethical will focuses your thoughts on what is truly important to you. Your relationship with money – how you spend it, save it and share it, can be the most tangible evidence of your true values. If you can clearly define your values before you make any financial plans, you may find that your money decisions are better aligned with your most deeply held beliefs and you become a more thoughtful steward of your financial resources. 

Not only will this document serve as a sort of personal vision statement, but it will also have intrinsic value to your family and friends after you’re gone. It may be the most appreciated thing you leave behind. And it can be a critical complement to your legal estate documents.

To prepare your own ethical will, you just need to answer a few questions for yourself:

Who do you want to speak to?

Is this an intimate letter written to one or two people or a more public document for the benefit of many (such as a reading at your funeral)? Do you want to write just one letter, or do you have different messages to share with different audiences?

What do you want to say?

There is a plethora of things you can include:

  • Your deepest personal values
  • What you want to be remembered for or a short autobiography, including people who had a meaningful influence in your life
  • The story behind a family heirloom or an important piece of family history – “this is why Great Grandpa changed the spelling of our name back in 1918”
  • The story behind a family heirloom
  • Why you made certain decisions in your legal estate docs – preempt an argument over who gets to (or has to?) adopt mom’s beloved Corgi
  • A secret recipe – “you’ll never guess it’s jalapenos that make my brownies so special”
  • Lessons you’ve learned the hard way
  • A poem or song that expresses what you want to share
  • Messages of reconciliation – any misunderstandings or estrangements that you can mend by asking forgiveness

Is there anything you want to include as a complement to your legal estate plan?

  • Special notes to the guardian of your children
  • Instructions for taking care of your pet – “Louie’s favorite toy is the bone; everything else you give him will be eaten in two minutes”
  • Non-legal guidance to executors or trustees, such as your thought process in designing your trust the way you did
  • Guidance to your healthcare proxy, such as why you don’t want to sustain your life artificially – this can especially help assuage your children’s guilt if they must end life-sustaining measures
  • Why you are leaving certain money to philanthropy

How do you want to record your thoughts?

Think about who will appreciate and safeguard this document; if you give it to one of your children before you die, you probably know which child will treasure it and which one will spill coffee on it. Alternatively, you could leave it with your estate attorney or financial planner.

You can use any medium – handwritten letter, video, even PowerPoint presentation if that’s how you express yourself. Just make sure you leave this in format that will endure. If you write a letter, you can use archival paper that will last longer than standard stock. Store in a cool, dry, dark place. Consider laminating or buying a portfolio to keep it safe. If you record a video or audio message, be careful to use a file format that is likely to be around for a while.

Finally, keep in mind a few best practices. Use your own voice, and don’t try to sound important. Be loving and affirming. Avoid saying hurtful things – this is not your chance to have the last word in a decades-long argument.

If you’ve decided to prepare an ethical will, don’t overthink it. When it comes down to it, you just need to start writing. The opening lines are very important because they set the tone of the letter, but you can come back and write those later. For me, it’s often easier to rewrite the opener after I have written the rest of a letter.

If you write an ethical will and find it to be a useful exercise, consider encouraging your family members to write their own ethical wills. The library that you create together can become a treasured family history for generations.


This material is provided as a courtesy and for educational purposes only.  Please consult your investment professional, legal or tax advisor for specific information pertaining to your situation.