What We Leave Behind

In addition to her will and legal documents, my grandmother left behind a handwritten note when she died several years ago. It listed her most precious jewelry items and to whom she wanted each piece to go. At the bottom of the paper was a brief statement about her love for all of us. The value of that statement, to me, was far more important than the bracelet I was bequeathed.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandmother’s note, as brief as it was, has a name. In today’s jargon, it’s known as an “ethical will” or “legacy letter.” And, as I learned at a workshop a couple months ago, these documents are becoming more and more popular as people of all ages consider what they want to leave behind for their children and grandchildren.

Before the workshop I was fuzzy on the meaning and purpose of an ethical will. Then I heard this definition: “As a traditional will includes wishes for the transfer of financial and concrete items, an ethical will outlines the intangibles of your life: your beliefs, wishes, and values.”

But ethical wills need not be limited in what they discuss. Many documents also mention:

  • Life lessons
  • Dreams
  • Asking for and giving of forgiveness
  • Love for family
  • Spirituality
  • Blessings for future generations

It’s important to keep in mind that ethical wills are not legal documents. While they can include burial and philanthropic preferences, they are not legally binding and should not be approached as such.

Still, the value of these personal notes cannot be overstated. According to research conducted by The Journal of Financial Planning, “Non-financial leave-behinds, such as ethics, morality, faith, and religion, are 10 times more important than the financial aspects of a legacy transfer.”

Further, it is not just recipients who benefit from ethical wills. According to one study, 81 percent of those who drafted an ethical will felt better after the experience (two percent felt worse, and 12 percent reported no change). Those with troubled familial relationships reported a stronger sense of peace, and all participants felt that they were able to think about the positives in their lives and the lessons they’ve learned.

The benefits of writing an ethical will are clear and yet many put it off until it’s too late. If you’re on the fence yourself, consider this: How much would a letter to you from your grandmother or grandfather be worth?

Priceless, I bet.

Take the time. You won’t regret it.