Ethical Wills: Preserving Your Legacy of Values

(By Barry K. Baines, M.D.)

I remember the phone call I received from Dr. Stanley that cold January in 1990. I had returned to Minnesota several weeks earlier, following a week in warm, sunny Florida to visit my parents. Dad was feeling a bit tired and noticed he couldn't play as many sets of tennis as he wanted to. He also had this cough that didn't want to go away. "So, my son the doctor, what should I do?" I replied "Dad, go see Dr. Stanley".

He did. "Walking pneumonia" was diagnosed on the x-ray. It didn't improve with antibiotics. At Dr. Stanley's suggestion, a biopsy was taken. It was lung cancer. The prognosis wasn't good.

Two weeks later, I was back in Florida for a visit. I asked my dad two questions. "Dad, is there anything you haven't done that you'd like to do while you still are feeling OK?" He replied, "just to have another 15 or 20 years of retirement". My second question. "Dad, at some point would you write a letter to me that talks about things that have been important to you in your life?" He thought that was a strange request. He was never much of a letter writer. He said he would think about it.

Eight months later, about a month before he died, he sent me the letter I had asked for. He wrote about the importance of working hard, being honest, his children getting the education he never had, helping others in need, and sticking by your family. The memories of my father come flooding back whenever I read this letter. Although it's only a couple of handwritten pages long, it's a precious gift whose value can't be quantified. I now know that what my father wrote to me, the legacy of his values, was his ethical will.

Many people have written a last will and testament to provide for the distribution of their material assets. Others have written a living will to provide instructions for how they want to be treated medically at the end of their days. Now, an increasing number of people are asking how they can preserve their most precious legacy...their values, beliefs, dreams, and hopes for future generations. Creating an ethical will provides a means for living on in the hearts and minds of family and friends after we are gone.

Ethical wills are not new. Hebrew scripture first described ethical wills, which were transmitted verbally. Later they were written as codicils to legal wills. Ethical wills were originally associated with someone's final days. Today, with the revival of this tradition, they are being written to mark family and life cycle events.

The range of people for whom writing an ethical will is appropriate is wide. For example, soon to be married or expectant couples can use an ethical will as an opportunity to take pause and reflect on values important to them as they embark upon these new life challenges. For elders, an ethical will provides an opportunity to "harvest" life's experiences, convert these experiences into wisdom, and preserve this for future generations. For those facing a life-limiting illness, creating an ethical will provides a sense of meaning, purpose, completion, and peace of mind.

Here is a partial list of "why to write an ethical will":

  • When you write an ethical will, you learn a lot about yourself
  • It is a way to affirm the past and be positive about the future
  • It allows for putting your personal "signature" on what universal values mean to you (e.g., love, truth)
  • It opens the door to forgiving others and being forgiven, which heals relationships
  • It helps coming to terms with our mortality
  • It can be a spiritual experience that provides a sense of completion in our lives

Every ethical will is as unique as the person writing it is. After reading a number of them, I was struck by the fact that whether simple or elegant, all conveyed the sense of coming from the heart. Writing an ethical will may seem difficult. However, it is simply the writing of a love letter to your family. It may well be one of the most valuable gifts you can give.

I hope this information will provide the spark you need to consider taking on the challenge of writing your ethical will. For those interested in pursuing this idea, resources can be found at the only web site devoted to information on ethical wills.

Other articles by Dr. Baines: Putting Your Values on Paper: How to Write an Ethical Will

Barry K. Baines, M.D.
1629 W. 25th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55405
Tel: 612-883-5376 (day)
Tel: 612-374-9526 (eve)
Fax: 612-374-1228

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