I frequently do estate planning webinars, usually alone. Nevertheless, I always enjoy having a co-presenter, and I frequently work with Ed Morrow from Huntington Bank as my co-presenter, who’s incredibly bright. However, I’m doing a webinar for Leimberg Information Services (www.leimbergservices.com) on May 13, 2021 at 1:00 p.m. EDT on the subject of ethical wills. For registration information, go to https://new.leimbergservices.com/wdev/register.cfm?id=1104.
My co-presenter, Eric L. Weiner, Ph.D., of https://familylegacyadvisor.com/, is the author of two books that help people write ethical wills, Words from the Heart: A Practical Guide to Writing an Ethical Will and Ethical Wills: Words from the Jewish Heart, which are available from the author at https://familylegacyadvisor.com/resources. I highly recommend Eric’s very short and practical books about this important subject.
What is an ethical will? An ethical will is a document that passes ethical values from one generation to the next. It has nothing to do with passing on property of any kind. However, in many ways, the ethical will is an important part of legacy giving because it passes on wisdom and feelings that secular documents like wills and trusts don’t usually convey directly.
Even though I was familiar with the ethical will and was a big fan of it as a believer in purposeful estate planning, I’d never assisted a client with writing an ethical will, nor had I ever undertaken to write my own ethical will. Therefore, I proposed to Eric that I write my own ethical will for the purpose of discussing it during our webinar in order to add a real human touch to it. He thought that it was a great idea, so we agreed that I’d write an ethical will.
This blog represents my thoughts about the experience and process of writing my ethical will. I’ll share a couple of details about my ethical will, as well as one passage. In short, it was an interesting, positive process, but it wasn’t without some significant difficulties. For starters, I had real trouble starting, which was frustrating to me because I never have what some call writer’s block. In fact, while I had given myself plenty of time to write my ethical will, I actually started to panic about not finishing the ethical will in time before the webinar. I was worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Nevertheless, as time got short, I found a ethical will worksheet format on-line at www.everplans.com that had a series of subject categories with sentence starters that finally got me going. It took a while to complete every section and fill in every sentence, but nine single-spaced typed pages later, my ethical will was complete.
What follows are the first two paragraphs of my ethical will:
I begin this document, which is my Ethical Will, with a sentence-In the Name of God, Amen-that was customarily used to begin all last wills and testaments before the practice ended a little more than a century ago. As an aside, at one time there was a legal difference between a will, which covered lands, and a testament, which covered personal property, but this distinction, which required people to have to execute two separate documents to transmit their belongings at death, was eliminated a few centuries ago when the two separate documents were combined under the name last will and testament, so now you know. But I digress, which is going to happen several times during my Ethical Will as it’s just a part of my personality, so you just as soon be ready for diversions.
You may find it odd that a lawyer who was trained to write wills and trusts would use the opening line from a historical last will and testament in his Ethical Will, which doesn’t transmit any property at all. First of all, I want to make it clear that this Ethical Will is not to be construed in any way to distribute any property that I could leave by will or any other mode of transfer. Moreover, my Ethical Will should not be construed as interpreting, amending, modifying or terminating any testamentary arrangements that I’ve made elsewhere to transmit property. However, with the legal warranty out of the way, that still doesn’t explain the reason for my use of the opening phrase.
In closing, I found the experience of writing my ethical will to be very therapeutic and satisfying, even though it did force me to visit some painful parts of my past. I chalk up my writer’s block to the same sorts of psychological difficulties that my clients routinely encountered in writing wills and trusts, which makes sense now. If you haven’t ever attempted to write your own ethics will, I wholeheartedly encourage you to consider it.