The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Ethical Wills: A Tool For Self Definition

Authored By Eric L. Weiner, M.S.W., Ph.D.

As families consider options for the distribution of assets to the next generation, most of the emphasis is on the tangible assets. Many people, however, view wealth as more than money and real estate. Wealth, for them, includes passing on their wisdom, guiding principles, spiritual beliefs, and family heritage to the next generation. One way to do that is by writing an ethical will.

Ethical wills have a long and rich history. They were first described in the Old Testament 3000 years ago when Jacob addressed his twelve sons on his deathbed. He told them stories, predicted their futures, and imparted his life lessons. Written ethical wills date back to the 12th century. The custom was to write directions for the religious and secular guidance of children.

Today, ethical wills are often used in conjunction with a basic will of inheritance. They can take the form of a written preamble that accompanies more formal estate planning documents or they can be a separate document. Generally, they contain statements of values, beliefs, blessings, wisdom and family stories.

An ethical will is not a legal document and does not easily fit into the traditional tax and legal language of basic wills. Most ethical wills contain one or more of the following: hopes for the future; lessons learned from life experiences; appreciation for heirs; religious or spiritual beliefs; and comfort thoughts (e.g. statements of forgiveness; acceptance of death; Weiner, 2010). Typical length varies from one to five pages and while most are written, an alternative option is to make a video recording.

Most families avoid talking about inheritance issues. Tough questions about the future, asset distribution, and who gets prized possessions should be planned and discussed before documents are drawn up. However, raising these sensitive topics can be unsettling for families.

Unaddressed, these issues often have negative long-term consequences.  When families fail to discuss what is important, they put both their wealth and family unity at risk. Family squabbles, little or no direct communication, secrets, ruined family relationships, and litigation all contribute to a bleak picture for asset preservation.

An ethical will is one tool for opening up legacy conversations with family members. Consistent with Bowen Theory and the concept of differentiation of self, an ethical will contains the principles that have guided the life of the writer. In addition, an ethical will is all about defining for the current family and the generations to come what is most important to self. The writing and reading of an ethical will can demonstrate a high level of leadership that may bring calm to the family unit.

Writing an ethical will helps the writer by clarifying their beliefs and the decisions made in the basic will. Difficult emotions can be more easily expressed in this format. There are great potential benefits to improving communication and family relationships. It is suggested that an ethical will be read to others, such as at a family meeting. Some will read the ethical will of a deceased member at the start of a family meeting, and, when this is done, they report an easing of tension. This helps establish a positive atmosphere and a moral compass for important decisions that need to be made.

The main ingredient is to speak from the heart. As such, anything goes, as long as it is kept positive. Professional writing skills are not required. Creativity and imagination are encouraged. One caution is to not script the behavior of others. They are left to define their own principles.

The writing process is important because our words can help anchor our behavior. “We may need to remind ourselves from time to time just what our guiding principles are – listing them on paper, or writing about them. But having them in place, accepted into a personal “rulebook” of life is a great advantage. If valid, they will point the way in many circumstances and dilemmas” (Gilbert).

The following excerpt was written by a 51 year-old insurance agent to his family. After a month of reflection, he sat down and wrote the following:

Inheritance is a tricky thing. It’s easy to get caught up in how much and when do I get it. I hope you consider that your inheritance is something vastly more important. Money can only take you so far in life. During my life I have come to cherish a number of values, principles and core beliefs that have served me well. Showing kindness, treating people fairly, staying connected to the family, and not taking myself too seriously have all come in handy at various points in my life. Also, don’t forget, it’s a big world out there. I hope you find meaning in connecting to something larger than yourself. That may be through religion or spirituality. I read somewhere that the key to happiness is knowing what you believe in and acting in accordance with those beliefs. I can tell you that worked for me and I hope it does for you too.

Are you ready to start writing your own ethical will?

Gilbert, R., “The Cornerstone Concept: In Leadership, In Life.” Leading Systems Press, 2008

Weiner, E. “Words from the HEART: A Practical Guide to Writing an Ethical Will.” Self-published, 2010

Eric L. Weiner, M.S.W., Ph.D., Family Legacy Advisor



This post was published by

2 Comments on "Ethical Wills: A Tool For Self Definition"

  • Lisa Moss says

    I have learned about ethical will before, but had never thought about it in terms of defining yourself to you family. This is so interesting. I am not ready to write one, but I am definitely going to start thinking about it and make it a goal to put something on paper!

  • Kelly Matthews-Pluta says

    I have never heard about an ethical will. The concept is intriguing. A belief statement about important principles learned in one’s life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *