Values, not Valuables

By Fern Glazer Premium

Wish you could learn who your ancestors actually were, beyond just the facts? You can ensure your descendants know a whole lot more about you — if you join the growing number of Americans who are creating ethical wills.

“An ethical will is a letter or statement about your values or what has meaning in your life,” says Donna Gold, a personal historian who conducts workshops on how to prepare such documents.

Also known as a legacy letter or life letter, an ethical will leaves your heirs more than just money or property. You can use it to share family stories or words of wisdom, to explain why you left the good china to your daughter and the Matchbox car collection to your third cousin, or to tell your children or grandchildren what you couldn’t — or didn’t want to — while you were alive.

The Torah first described ethical wills some 3,000 years ago, and the Bible also contains references. While generations have long passed down family history and values orally, today’s legacy letters do the job in writing. “People are realizing there’s an absence,” Gold says about why written ethical wills are becoming more common. “Perhaps it’s that we’re more scattered and we’re not getting those stories.”

Want to make sure your descendants don’t miss out? Gold suggests attending a class or a workshop on ethical wills, reading a how-to book or just starting to write. Once you’ve prepared the document, store it in a secure location such as a safety deposit box or with your lawyer. Or you might share it with friends and family while you’re alive.

“I think it’s important to actually put it in writing in a document that is as valued as the will is,” says Gold. “It’s a continuum of family.”

From the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine.