Individuals usually provide for their heirs through the use of various types of trusts, life insurance, wills, designation of beneficiary forms and other legal documents. But while a traditional estate plan can accomplish the bequest of virtually any tangible possession, it usually does not address such ethereal properties as ideas, philosophies, or other treasures of knowledge or wisdom that the testator (or, the person making the will) may wish to pass on to heirs. As a result, an increasing number of testators are making provisions to pass on some of the wealth of wisdom that they have accumulated throughout their lives with ethical wills. Read on as we cover this unique estate planning tool.
Leaving a Legacy
An ethical will is a document that contains the testator's personal - and often intangible - legacy, including the wisdom, experiences and other lessons that he or she would like to share with heirs before death. Ethical wills allow the testator to pass on memories to his or her heirs, as opposed to other legal documents that deal with passing on tangible assets. In short, while legal wills deal with the pocketbook, ethical wills come from the heart. They are generally considered to be the final personal message that the testator wishes to deliver to heirs while they are still alive.
Content and Form of Ethical Wills
In terms of content, ethical wills have no specific requirements of any kind that must be satisfied. They can be of any length and contain virtually any statement or expression that the testator wishes to include, such as an extended account of one or more life experiences, a song, a poem, a fictional story created by the testator, or an act or deed that he or she wants to acknowledged.
Other, more practical matters can be addressed in ethical wills as well. For example, they can offer an explanation of how and why the testator apportioned tangible assets to certain heirs. This can prevent future misunderstandings and resentment between heirs that may stem from any inequitable division of the testator's estate.
Ethical wills can be handwritten, contain spelling and grammatical errors, and still be far more meaningful to heirs than the most perfectly written legal will. And contrary to legal wills, ethical wills are generally read to the heirs by the testator, or by a designated speaker with the testator present.
From an emotional and psychological perspective, ethical wills can provide a sense of closure for the testator. While reading this document to one's heirs can be a difficult experience for both the writer and listeners, it can help both parties to face the testator's death in a dignified fashion. Ultimately, this document can be viewed as the testator's goodbye speech, the chance to say a final farewell, thank you, and to reminisce on the items addressed in the document.
Testators also use these wills as a vehicle to express lifelong sentiments that have previously gone unspoken, such as sorrow and regret for past mistakes, and love and/or forgiveness for past enemies or injustices they endured. Therefore, while traditional estate planning can provide a sense of control over one's tangible assets, an ethical will can provide a measure of emotional and psychological reassurance for the testator, and he or she can rest in peace knowing that provisions were made to pass on an important message.
An Ancient Tradition
The concept of ethical wills dates back several thousand years. The Hebrew Bible contains the first written record of an ethical will in the Chapter 49 of Genesis, where it is written that Jacob made a series of pronouncements and predictions regarding each of his 12 sons and their respective tribes. Of course, the majority of early ethical wills were passed on verbally, but at some point, they began to be recorded on paper. A few transcripts dating back to the Middle Ages have survived to present day. Many descendants have kept their ancestors' ethical wills as family heirlooms, passing them from generation to generation.
Because ethical wills convey purely abstract wishes and ideas, they are not legally binding. These documents are completely unenforceable and are only made to be heard by the heirs, not necessarily obeyed. This means that any instructions included are at risk of being ignored. They are also not subject to probate or to the laws of public domain that may apply to the testator's estate.
Ethical wills are making a comeback in popularity and will likely continue to do so for a long time, as they can provide a tangible way for grantors to leave their intangible selves, words of wisdom and invaluable learning experiences to their heirs. Ethical wills should not be confused with incentive trusts, which can reward certain accomplishments or behaviors with material legacies.