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Planning Ahead: Tools and Resources

Writing an Ethical Will

Besides passing on worldly possessions to friends, family, and charitable organizations, many people want to leave a different kind of legacy: their values, principles, personal stories and history, and wishes for their family’s future.

This is what an ethical will is for—to enable the writer to be known and remembered by future generations.

The ethical will is a tradition with Jewish roots (the Hebrew word for an ethical will is zava'ah). The first ethical wills are found in the Bible, where Jacob is described gathering his children around his bedside to tell them how they should live after he is gone. The Apocrypha, Talmud, and medieval and modern Jewish literature all contain examples of ethical wills left by parents.

Besides serving to pass on one’s values, beliefs, and wishes, an ethical will can also benefit the people who write one. By articulating what you value most in life, reflecting on your personal experiences, and thinking about the decisions you’ve made, you can learn more about yourself. In this way, an ethical will can be used as a tool for self-reflection and, if you’re so inclined, self-improvement.

Proponents of ethical wills suggest that while there are no formal aspects to them (ethical wills aren’t legal documents), they suggest including three broad areas of content:

  • Lessons learned and meaningful family and personal stories from the past
  • Values, beliefs, and expressions of gratitude from the present
  • Advice, hopes, and requests for the future

In addition to sharing these intangibles, ethical wills can be a way of distributing personal property that has little financial value, but deep personal meaning. This could include family photographs, favorite recipes, items of clothing, and personal mementos.

Ethical wills, unlike traditional ones, are often shared during one’s lifetime. They can be used to bring families together to reflect on their history and to hear first-hand from a loved one about what they care about. That can then become a part of the family fabric going forward.

Resource to learn more about ethical wills:

Giving Children Your Blessing: A Rabbi’s Tips for Ethical Wills by Ronnie Caplane (J Weekly, September 15, 2000).

Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, M.D. (Da Capo Press, 2006). Baines also publishes a website. He provides basic information for creating an ethical will with real examples of ethical wills written by people of different ages.

Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother by Sharon Strassfeld (Scribner, 1998). A spiritual-ethical will written by Strassfeld to her daughter as she leaves home for college. A combination of stories expressing family and cultural values, direct instruction, and apologies for pain she caused her.

The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to my Children and Yours by Marin Wright Edelman (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1993). In this spiritual-ethical will for her sons, Edelman recounts her experience and perspective on life in essays variously addressed to her own children, to all children, and to parents.

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln translated by Marvin Lowenthal (Schocken Books, 1987). The only extant pre-modern spiritual-ethical will written by a woman, from 1690.

So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them edited and annotated by Jack Reimer and Nathaniel Stampfer (LongHill Partners, 2009). A collection of traditional ethical wills, which includes a guide to writing an ethical will, with suggestions for topics to be covered and a brief consideration about informing others about what you have written in it.