As a mother lays in a coma in the Oscar-winning film “The Descendants”, her family discovers secrets and choices she made, and they will never hear her side of the story. While Elizabeth King (portrayed by Patricia Hastie) took great care to make sure that her values related to her physical body and death were known through her Advance Medical Directive, she did not do the same with her legacy. Taking the time to write your story and share your motives behind your decisions in life is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your family.
The pain and anguish, anger and heartbreak the husband, Matt King (played by George Clooney) and the 17 year old daughter, Alex (depicted by Shailene Woodley) experience as they sort through Elizabeth’s infidelity could have been diminished or cushioned by a lasting, enduring message from Elizabeth about what she wanted most for her husband and children. This is what I refer to as her “Intangible Legacy”, and it is often captured in a non-binding document referred to as an Ethical Will.
What came to be called “Ethical Wills” date from the late 12th century, when there was an expectation in the Jewish tradition that fathers were to write their sons a letter of guidance on how to live a worthy or ethical life. “Ethical Will” is the derivation of the term that is most commonly used today.
Do you have an Ethical Will?
If you should be rendered incapacitated or if you unexpectedly die, will your children know the legacy you hoped to leave them?
Will your children understand the decisions you’ve made in your estate plan so that when the will is read, they won’t be left wondering why you did what you did?
Estate Planning professionals are proficient at creating documents and structures to make sure that whatever you want to be carried out will be done so to the letter of the law. They need your guidance to make sure that what they are designing is in keeping with your values and takes care of what matters most to you. Along with better understanding you and what motivated you in your life, your family members also need guidance after you are gone to know how to best utilize the assets you have transferred to them. In a recent conversation with Amanda Weitman, Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo Private Bank, she captured this concept beautifully when she said: “The best way to guide your loved ones is by tying your values to your valuables.”
Knowing how to articulate your values and express them effectively is simpler than you might realize. What follows is an excerpt from Self-Counsel Press’ soon-to-be-released Estate Planning for the Blended Family by Emily Bouchard, Managing Partner, Wealth Legacy Group and Paul Hood, estate planning attorney and consultant.
Your Ethical Will is your way to convey what you care about most to your loved ones. It is the time-honored tool for enduring personal expression that is non-binding, but can accompany your Will and/or Trusts as a permanent place for loved ones to hear your “voice”. The resource that sets the standard for Ethical Wills is Susan Turnbull’s The Wealth of Your Life. In it she shows you in five easy steps how to go about crafting your Ethical Will. These steps are:
Step 1: Identify those you wish to address. This could be anyone from your children, your step-children, grandchildren, descendants (both through blood and through love) yet unborn, siblings, nieces and nephews, parents, spouse or partner, friends, guardians of your children, trustees, and even your agent under your healthcare power of attorney.
Step 2: Consider your intentions and draft your opening lines. Many people treat this like a letter and start with a simple salutation and a brief statement about what this is about. Start with the end in mind as consider what you would like the readers of your Ethical Will to have, and to feel, as a result of seeing your words.
Step 3: Reflect on what to include in the body of the letter. Make notes for reference. People find this part easier to address by breaking it down into themes. Some themes Turnbull suggests as possible starting points include: your history, your values, your perspective, your estate plan and or financial plan from a personal context, and expressing your feelings of love, hope, and even concern for your loved ones.
Step 4: Integrate your thoughts into an outline. This part is for you to help you organize your thoughts and the flow of what you want to say. As you put your ideas into groupings, you’ll get a sense for what you would like to express first, what will follow, and how you would like to end.
Step 5: With your notes to guide you, compose your Ethical Will. Taking the time to do this will not only bring you and your loved ones peace of mind, but it will also go a long way towards mitigating potential hurt feelings and allow for greater understanding related to why you determined to set up your estate plan as you did. Having a context that is clearly expressed will allow the content of the Will and other documents to be respected and honored more fully.
Once you’ve gotten started, you can use this exercise as a catalyst to have a heartfelt conversation with family members about what matters most to you, and learn from them what matters most to them about what you’ve shown and taught them. If Elizabeth’s character had had this level of conversation with Alex and Matt, they may have had a chance to repair past hurts and resentments before it was too late.