Leaving a Legacy: Passing Down Moral Ethics

Rachael Rifkin

In the memoir my grandfather left behind about his experiences as a young man serving in the Korean War, he wrote that the book was for posterity. These stories were his way of leaving a legacy.

At first I couldn’t place the sense of familiarity that filled the pages, but it didn’t take me long to realize that his enthusiasm, curiosity and writing voice all reminded me of me.

By recognizing our similarities, I saw how my grandfather’s life experiences and traits had filtered down to me, and I gained a sense of how my future might look if I kept going along a comparable path.

This gave me a deeper understanding of my own life and place in my family’s history. As a ghostwriter and personal historian, I now help people memorialize their own values, life stories and family histories.

One way to do this is through a legacy letter, also known as an ethical will. You know how a last will and testament passes down your material belongings? An ethical will conveys the ethics and values you hope to pass down.

This often includes advice, treasured memories and reminiscences about important life events. It can contain your ruminations on regrets, forgiveness, love, mentors, cultural beliefs, morals and ethics, ancestry and how you would like to be remembered.

Leaving a Legacy That Transcends Money

An ethical will may be part of a well-rounded approach to estate planning, as it can help clarify your financial, estate, retirement and philanthropic decisions.

It’s a chance to provide context behind your decisions, too, so there’s no mystery--or conflict--surrounding your choices. For example, you might choose to explain why you designated who you did as your child’s guardian.

Let’s say you want your comic book collection to go to your second-cousin-once-removed rather than your son or daughter. This is your opportunity to explain that you and this cousin grew up collecting comic books together and she’s the only one who appreciates the collection like you do.

“At its heart, an ethical will is a love letter, a letter in a bottle,” says Susan Turnbull, the founder and principal of Personal Legacy Advisors and author of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will. “It’s a deeply meaningful exercise, as important for its creator as for its recipients, both known and unknown.”

A Growing Trend in How People Are Leaving a Legacy

Ethical wills have been around for hundreds of years, and are a longstanding tradition in the Jewish community.

Originally beginning as oral histories, people started writing down these family histories and moral stories in a more formal way in the 11th century. That said, they’ve become increasingly popular in the last 10 to 15 years.

Laura Roser, founder and CEO of the legacy planning company Paragon Road and author of Your Meaning Legacy: How to Cultivate & Pass On Non-Financial Assets, says, “Ethical wills, or legacy letters, are gaining popularity for anyone to express his or her views—religious or not. Many financial professionals are aware of the importance of ethical wills and may bring it up with their clients, where in the past, it was hardly ever brought up.”

In one survey, Baby Boomers said that they felt a non-financial legacy was 10 times more important than money and other assets. And 77 percent of Boomers and elders said values and life experiences were very important parts of an inheritance. In a 2012 update, 86 percent of Boomers and 74 percent of elders said family stories ranked highest in importance for legacy planning.

Why People Create Ethical Wills

Research indicates that the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more resilient they are.

Ethical wills are like moral stories for kids, telling them about the values important to their family. They're a way to delve into the psychological side of money.

Creating a legacy letter is beneficial for the people telling the family stories, too. Sharing family stories has been correlated with reduced rates of depression and anxiety, and improved cognitive function, reduced chronic pain and further personal growth and self-discovery.

For younger people, an ethical will can help you chart your trajectory and ensure you’re living a life consistent with your moral ethics. In fact, people often are inspired to create ethical wills when they’re going through large changes like a wedding, birth of a child, a career change or special anniversary.

So, What’s Actually in an Ethical Will?

Ethical wills can be a one-page letter or a full length book, a series of four-line stanzas written in iambic pentameter or a video. They can really be anything you want them to be.

It can be helpful to see some examples, but the easiest way to create a legacy letter is to simply answer meaningful questions about your life. Here are the questions I use when helping people with their legacy letters:

  • What is the most important thing you learned from your parents or grandparents?

  • Growing up, did you have any family traditions?

  • Name some of the events and people who had the greatest impact on your life. Why were they so influential?

  • What was the best job and the worst job you ever had?

  • Why did you choose your profession/career? What do you like about it? How does it challenge you? Reward you?

  • What does success mean to you?

  • Do you have a particular success that you want to share with your loved ones?

  • How about a failure and its corresponding lesson?

  • What are you most grateful for? Proud of?

  • Who are the most important people in your life?

  • What are the five virtues you most value and why?

  • What is the hardest decision you ever made? How did you make the decision?

  • In difficult times, what has given you comfort?

  • What causes are important to you?

  • What are your wishes for your children/loved ones?

  • What mistake(s) do you hope your children/loved ones avoid?

  • What experience(s) do you hope your children/loved ones get to have?

  • What tradition or value do you most want to see continue in your family?

  • What are the most important things you’ve learned from your children/loved ones?

  • What makes you proud of your children/loved ones?

You could keep your ethical will in question-and-answer format, turn your answers into a letter, expand each answer into a longer story or anything else. It won’t matter to your loved ones how you present it; they’ll just be grateful that you thought to share.

What to Do With Your Ethical Will Once You’ve Written It

Legacy letters can be stored with your estate planning documents, kept in a vault or placed with the rest of your important documents. You might choose to give yours to the executors of your estate for safekeeping.

Some people don’t want their loved ones to read these letters until they’re gone, while other people choose to share them now. As a compromise, you might initiate conversations based on the contents of your letter without the recipients actually seeing the document. There’s no reason to keep it to yourself, unless you want to.

It can be easy to put off sitting down to write your ethical will. For some people, the subject can feel overwhelming or uncomfortable. Others may feel a desire to get the letter just right, preventing them from creating anything at all.

Just remember that your ethical will can be revisited throughout the years, and you can make changes whenever you want. Same as with writing a will for your financial life, the important thing is to simply get started.

Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.

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