When my mother died 30 years ago, friends lamented that at age 28, I barely had time to get her chicken soup recipe. They were right. I hadn’t. Grief-stricken, I thought: Who cares about soup? I just lost my best friend! But now that my sons are adults, I want to pass down recipes from the grandmother they never met so her legacy lives on in their kitchens. I want that damn recipe.
Cancer runs through my blood. As a third-generation patient from a cancer-cluster family, I lost my mom in my twenties, my sister in our thirties, and my dad in my forties. I got better at goodbyes by necessity, not choice. Living with incurable yet treatable lymphoma for the past 12 years, I’ve known I don’t want to repeat history. Starting my own recipe collection, I began drafting a love letter to my sons from my kitchen. Without realizing it, I’d begun an ethical will. It’s that easy.
What Is an Ethical Will?
An ethical will is very different from a last will and testament, which is a legally binding document stating who will acquire financial wealth. While a last will and testament is all about monetary inheritance, an ethical will is focused on moral inheritance.
With no formal rules or requirements, ethical wills can reflect your personality. They allow you to impart wisdom, beliefs, and family history and celebrate life’s most meaningful moments while sharing blessings and future dreams through letters, video messages, audio recordings, scrapbooks, and artwork. You can convey life lessons through old photos, favorite quotes or prayers, cherished items of clothing, secret family recipes, lush lullabies, or treasured stories with signature punch lines. The trick is to speak from the heart.
Financial wills are typically read only after death, but ethical wills can be shared while you’re still living. Families can gather to hear origin stories, explore spirituality, solve family mysteries, or discuss burning questions directly with their loved ones. Ethical wills are an ancient Jewish tradition, and examples can be found at deathbeds throughout the Bible. For centuries, Jewish parents shared wisdom and values with their children in end-of-life letters called tzevaot.
Lester Lipschutz, an internationally recognized trusts and estates attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has clients who create letters, books, and videos as companions to their financial wills to explain their passionate commitment to philanthropy and community service. The intended audience is usually grandchildren, but these documents can be handed down for generations.
“It is not about ego,” he says. “It is about imparting a story that you don’t want to be lost. Most people spend a lot of time thinking about how to protect their assets from taxes and divorcing spouses but rarely think about how to protect their family’s values. It is helpful to add more texture to a financial will, with less about taxes and more about a meaningful moral testament for future generations.”
You may hear ethical wills spoken of in the same breath as “legacy letters,” but they’re different. Ethical wills are usually addressed to children and close family members. Legacy letters can be written to anyone, related or not. Both offer meaningful messages to cherish.
Conversations about death are never fun. You can’t dress mortality up. Good snacks help (go sweet, not savory), but broaching the topic is often a struggle. The only thing harder than having an awkward talk with a loved one while they are alive is not having that conversation. Procrastination carries the risk of missing the chance to ask critical questions, share feelings, or offer forgiveness. The only conversations that haunt us are the ones we aren’t brave enough to have.
Esther Altmann, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan who was formerly on the teaching faculty of New York University, addresses the hesitation: “For many, composing an ethical will may feel psychologically daunting! We instinctively avoid thinking about death and grappling with the fragile and fleeting reality of our lives. Moreover, how does one distill the essence of what you have valued in life into one final document? If writing is not one’s natural or best mode of expression, I would encourage people to begin by talking with a loved one about the highlights of their life and to also share the painful moments in which they felt most tested and challenged. This reflection, a free association of sorts, may yield valuable nuggets to begin the task.”
Is an Ethical Will Legally Binding?
Unlike a last will and testament, an ethical will is not legally binding. But avoid including anything that conflicts with your legally binding financial will. Although it carries no legal weight, an ethical will carries the weight of the heart. Choose your words carefully. Skip the part about why you gave your daughter the car because she’s your favorite. We all know who you loved most, even though you swore you loved us equally (spoiler alert: It’s the baby and … yes, I am).
Altmann recently explained: “An ethical will is not only an opportunity to convey what is most meaningful to you for future generations, it may also be one last opportunity to heal any breaches or hurts that may have transpired with family or friends. This is a particularly important consideration, as research has revealed that in the US, approximately 27 percent of individuals report being estranged from a family member.”
How to Draft Your Ethical Will
This holiday season, many families are reuniting in person, so the timing is perfect to capture words of wisdom and precious memories.
Step 1: Extend an Invitation
Before a gathering, gently ask seriously ill or elderly family members if they’d be willing to share stories, memories, or teachings and be filmed. Emphasize how this will be cherished by future generations. For motivation, watch this TEDx Talk on ethical wills and how to create one. Lucia Fanjul, an oncology social worker with CancerCare, shared: “There is very little under our control when we think about our deaths. An ethical will gives us the power to shape and leave behind how we want to be remembered by our loved ones. An ethical will is just us saying ‘remember, this is who I am.’”
Step 2: Find Meaningful Questions
Asking engaging, open-ended, probing questions is an art form. To get the conversation rolling, Everplan offers free, downloadable ethical will worksheets with questions and thought-starters about your personal and professional history, political or religious beliefs, and hopes for the future. These might include: a mistake I made that I hope you can avoid, an experience I hope you get to have, how I define happiness and success, where I find comfort when things get tough. To help you envision, outline, and draft an ethical will, this guide from Personal Legacy Advisors offers an elegant framework for $20.
Step 4: Get the Whole Family Involved
Invite younger family members to add their own questions and teens to manage the technology. Use humor to break the ice. No need for a serious “sermon” vibe the entire time. Consider starting with everyone sharing their favorite joke, or a great memory. For filming or recording, designate a quiet, comfortable room as your studio for private, one-on-one interviews. Storycorps offers a free app and self-directed recording tools to help you successfully capture the kinds of family tales we covered earlier.
Step 5: Be Creative and Get Personal
To avoid platitudes and generic advice, aim to capture specific memories and stories beloved by your family. Have fun with the process—ask grandma to teach you the steps to her first dance with grandpa. What song was playing? Then ask about the tenets of a fulfilling marriage. Stroll through an old neighborhood and ask about daily life back in the day. What were their dreams, then and now? Classic examples of this include President Obama’s blessing to his daughters and The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to my Children and Yours by Marian Wright Edelman.
Step 6: Start Early
Legacy projects are not only for end-of-life conversations. As family mission statements, they can be shaped, revised, and redefined over time. Record musings at milestone moments or life transitions. Write one page every birthday. The renowned author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, Barry Baines, shared that Living Wisely’s personal online portal “provides prompts and exercises for articulating what is important to you, allowing you to add to your ‘work in progress’ any time, utilizing voice transcription or keyboarding on any computer, tablet, or smartphone” with a $25 annual subscription. StoryWorth emails one weekly thought-provoking question: What is one of your fondest childhood memories? What is the furthest you have traveled? Who are your favorite artists? At year’s end, a hardcover book of your responses costs $99.
Step 7: Ask for Help
If you prefer to outsource the job, or just need help managing the whole thing, LifeChronicles films elderly and seriously ill loved ones at no cost. After a tenderly guided interview professionally filmed at home, the service offers a custom DVD (previously covered, alongside app StoryCatcher Pro for iOS). Got writer’s block? Frish Brandt, a “Letter Midwife,” conducts interviews and crafts Lasting Letters to loved ones for a sliding scale fee of $75-300. Expert advice abounds in Jack Reimer and Nathaniel Stampfer’s So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.
Step 8: Land a Good Ending
In The Four Things That Matter Most, pioneer palliative care physician Ira Byock describes what most people long to hear before goodbye: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. From parents: I’m so proud of you. That might be the perfect wrap-up.
Research Supports the Benefits of Legacy Projects
The Journal of Palliative Medicine cites research demonstrating the emotional benefits of legacy projects for patients coping with life-limiting illnesses, from greatly improved family communication to reduced depressive symptoms and caregiving stress. Research by Baines demonstrated that after completing an ethical will, 77 percent of hospice patients felt improved emotional well-being, while 85 percent felt improved physical well-being. Baines shared with me that “Over the past 25 years of working with individuals creating ethical wills, two universal themes have emerged: the comfort and peace of mind that people experience going through this reflective process and how people begin to live their lives with greater intention, having identified what is truly important to them.”
My sons are coming home for the holidays. Nana’s cabbage soup will warm our souls. Opening my mom’s fragile 1950s handwritten recipe book, I find her mom’s prized recipe. Scanning it into my sons’ growing collection, I add a dash of visuals: a 1970s photo of Nana, their great-grandmother, standing proudly in her kitchen preparing for Rosh Hashana. And I include her teaching: “Nothing is more important than family gathering!”
I then add a photo of Nana’s mother in the driver’s seat of a Ford Model-T, after she emigrated from Russia to a Connecticut dairy farm in the early 1900s. She proceeded to raise a household of daughters who all became school teachers because, as Nana taught us: “Education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you.” Now, thanks to precious memories and a killer cabbage soup recipe, my boys have a taste of their heritage. So, maybe it was never really about the soup … it’s about the lasting legacy of love that gets soulfully stirred into that precious pot.