Ethical Wills: Tools for Seniors and their Adult Children

August is National Ethical Wills Month

We continue our thoughts on the topic of legacy in recognition of August as National “What Will Be My Legacy?” Month. In our last post, we talked about finding legacy and purpose. Today we are into action and with something new.

There is a new or rather a re-new-al of an old practice whereby folks can let it be known what is most important to them. It’s called an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter or the more contemporary name Spiritual-Ethical Will. This tool is enjoying renewed popularity today among seniors and their Adult Children alike, and you may wish to learn more about it.

Senior Care, Raleigh, NCAn ethical will is not a legal document; rather it’s a tool to convey our values and perhaps our life lessons. It can express our hopes for those around us, declare our love or maybe even offer forgiveness.

Although it has the capability, the ethical will does not discuss the treasures to be divided. Rather, the true intent is to convey treasures of the heart.

The idea of this type of conveyance is not new. There are references found in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and also within many cultures. Tales that once were handed down orally by our elders may today be harnessed using technology to preserve for all to enjoy.

Folks young and old are writing memories or commemorating occasions to be put forth for future generations. They are sharing their ideas with their family or community. An aging parent may write to an adult child, or an expectant mother might record her wishes for her own child yet unborn.

These messages thoughtfully designed can serve a number of purposes. They can hold more value to both the sender and receiver than any actions taken toward estate planning or money spent on funeral arrangements. The ethical will or legacy letter can be a more meaningful gift developed for those we love.

They are beginning to emerge as another way to ‘HAVE THE CONVERSATION,’ one that holds both forward and backward considerations.

If we were to create our own, what kinds of things might we include? Here are some ideas offered by Benjamin Berkeley in his book My Wishes: Your Plan For Communicating and Organizing the Essential Your Family Needs:

  1. Your beliefs and opinions.
  2. Things you did to act on your values.
  3. Something you learned from your grandparents, parents, siblings, children or spouse.
  4. Something you learned from experience.
  5. Something you are grateful for.
  6. Your hopes for the future.
  7. Forgiving another.

As we proceed more ideas will likely surface.

There are many ways to approach creating an ethical will. One suggestion is to use a guided writing exercise or by following sample templates in books or workbooks, or in a workshop, such as this one from

Another suggestion includes starting an open-ended journal or diary to capture thoughts or events. Over time, themes may develop into your own personal sort of structure. One woman left her journal in a central place within her home. As thoughts and memories surfaced, she would record them. Her particular design was to gather stories that she thought her grandchildren ought to know including those of her own, of their grandfather, and of the generation before. She later arranged a series of stories into a timeline to create her legacy letter.

Let us also consider additional methods to make our thoughts and feelings known. Many are now choosing video as the vehicle for their voice. Video storytelling can hold a special place in the ethical will-making process. Folks can hand down a family story or relay “signs of the times” (and lessons learned) using this medium.

Senior care, Raleigh NC

Video can serve to capture family memories or unfold a story about the origin of the family business by showcasing the visions of its founder. Such examples can be found at sites like Every Story Media.  I will tell you that the process is easy and fun. (See my testimonial here, only too happy to provide).

Whatever method we choose, we may also want to consider a more serious side. Producing an ethical will may not always be easy emotionally. Not easy in the sense that one must confront oneself while writing advises Rabbi Jack Reiner. We may have to face up to failures, but we can try to focus on the things that really count. He offers a strategy that seems like sound guidance to me:

“If you had time to write just one letter to whom would it be addressed? What would it say? Would you think, forgive, or seek to instruct?”

While our ideas could be difficult to convey, they may also be difficult to receive. Our ethical wills may contain information or instructions that could be burdensome to some. One must always remember, however, that it comes from the heart. And that which comes from the heart will hopefully enter the heart, says Rabbi Reimer.

So why might I write or create an ethical will? I am attracted to the opportunity to convey the treasures of the heart rather than to simply convey material treasures. For me, this is another way to provoke thought and share with those whom I love, to let my folks know the things that are (or were) important to me. It’s about providing a thought and conversation starter.

It’s yet another way to (my mantra) HAVE THE CONVERSATION.


If you’d like to talk about the treasures to be divided or the treasures of the heart NAVIGATE NC is ready for your call. We help families to navigate the challenges that normally come with aging and with chronic disease. Call us at 919.628.4428 or CONNECT WITH US at


Image Credits: (first) Morguefile and (second) used with permission of Lyn Jackson, Every Story Media


Share this...
Share on Facebook
Share on LinkedIn