Ethical Wills


B EFORE HER MOTHER DIED LAST YEAR, MAUREEN EVANS hastily began writing down the stories she told her about her life. “ I captured something that otherwise would have been lost,” says Evans, who works for a nonprofit in public education advocacy in Washington, D.C. Inspired by this wonderful experience she began to write down her own stories for her four children and any grandchildren she may later have. “I wanted to make real sure that they didn’t get lost in the chaos of day-to-day life,” she says.


Her ultimate goal, however was not simply to recount facts and events in a personal history. Instead, Evans, 42, pursued a loftier purpose: to pass on her values by now creating what is known as an ethical will, a nonlegal document that typically imparts beliefs, lessons learned in life, and hopes and wishes for loved ones. “My money is important,” she says, “but it isn’t the be-all, end-all of what I want to give my kids.”


Evans is far from alone in her wish to leave something more personal than a plump IRA. More and more people are recognizing the value of bequeathing loved ones the most precious memories and lessons of a lifetime. Count among them President Bill Clinton, who recently advised a crowd off-book-sellers in Chicago, “I really think that anyone who’s fortunate enough to live to be 50 years old should take some time, even if it’s just a couple of weekends, to sit down and write the story of your life, even if it’s only 20 pages, and even if it’s only for your children and your grandchildren.”


Indeed, the idea of bequeathing your values along with your valuables has so resonated with people that a mini-industry is springing up around the idea. Professional writers will assist you in penning an ethical will—which may range in length from a few paragraphs to a lengthy tome—and videoggaphers will film you reading it. Retailers sell padded leather albums, with silk lining and acid-free paper, in which to store whatever legacy it is you wish to leave. There are even therapists who specialize in helping you work through any emotional issues involved in creating such a will.


The concept is also energizing—and injecting heart into—the estate-planning field. Barry Baines, M.D., author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper and creator of www.ethicalwill.com says that at the seminars he offers on the subject, one of his largest audiences is financial-planing professionals. “It’s a way to personalize the whole end-of-life planning process,” says Kenneth Wheeler, a lawyer in Winter Park, Florida, who has incorporated ethical wills into his practice.


But ethical wills are nothing new. The tradition of passing on beliefs, blessings, and advice to the next generation has been traced to biblical times. The earliest ethical wills were delivered by fathers seeking to bestow blessings and offer prophecies, as well as to leave burial instructions. In what may be the first such bequest, in the book of Genesis, Jacob gathers his 12 sons before his death to tell stories, predict their futures, and impart some of the wisdom of his long life.


Written ethical wills have survived from medieval times, and the themes have changed little since, says Rabbi Jack Riemer, author of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them. “The common issues are ones that are eternally human—like ‘Take care of your mother,’ ‘This is what has mattered to me,’ ‘This is what I believe,’” he says. For those approaching death, writing down their legacy of values provides a sense of peace. “By crafting an ethical will, terminally ill patients are ensuring that they will remain a part of the future,” says Baines, the medical director of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, home-based hospice program.


Today, with families spreading out and oral storytelling a near-extinct art, the need to write such wills has become more urgent, even among the healthy. Without them, “How will grandchildren know their grandparents and what they stand for?” Riemer asks. At the same time, recent powerful reminders of life’s fragility have prompted more people to think about preparing wills of all kinds, including ethical wills. Following the tragic events of 9/11, says Baines, traffic to his website more than doubled and has climbed steadily since.


Often, after urging their parents to write an ethical will, boomers see the value in making one themselves, says Baines, who notes a strong interest in writing ethical wills among middle-age adults. Take, for example, John Haeck, 54, a certified public accountant in Lakewood, Colorado, who intends to leave his to his two children. “I have no reason to believe that my life is drawing to a close or that I must immediately pen my values in anticipation of death,” Haeck says. “Frankly my interest lies in celebrating life.” Of course, for the document to have any meaning, what you write has to square with how you live. But your stories could still be revealing, even surprising, to your loved ones. When Del Jones, a marketing consultant in Tucson, Arizona, presented her ethical will to her three sons, all in their 40s and 50s, they learned things about her that they never knew. “I think that they weren’t aware of my passion for helping the world, for serving the community. It was also not evident to me that they shared this passion,” Jones says. “It could still happen in their lives—hopefully prodded by my ethical will.”


Your family members aren’t the only ones who may encounter something unexpected. “You’re really facing yourself and your life, what you have done and haven’t done,” says Sandy Swimoff, 65, an artist who lives half the year in Minneapolis and the other half in La Jolla, California. After urging her children to pursue their dreams in her ethical will, Swirnoff realized that she needed to go after her own, as well. Last May, 2003, the mother of two and grandmother of one took a trip to Japan to pursue her interest in textiles and art. “I had never been this far from home before on a trip that was completely about my own interests,” she says. “I have always let other people’s wishes and needs come first, as I think most wives and mothers do.”


The final issue to grapple with is when to give the document to your loved ones. Although they may be too young to read it now, sharing it with them while you are still living maybe a good way to improve communication. For Baines, presenting his own ethical will to his children six years ago when they were teenagers was a sort of coming-out event. “When I finished writing it, I felt an incredible peace of mind, a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “I also realized that I’d gone public with what I think is important. It forces me to think twice and walk the talk.”


BY: Karen Cheney

who has written for Money, BusinessWeek,

and Outside magazines. (To name a few.)



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