Enrich your friends, children, grandchildren, or anyone you hold dear, with a special message brimming with love and wisdom — a legacy letter or ethical will — for them to treasure. What is a legacy letter or ethical will and how is it different from a traditional will?
Traditional Wills and Ethical Wills
A traditional will — a “last will and testament” — is a legal document that is usually (but not always) prepared with the help of a lawyer, specifying the distribution and management of a deceased individual’s business and personal assets. If a will is properly prepared, registered and executed, the specifications and directions of the deceased can be legally binding.
A legacy letter or ethical will is, by contrast, not meant to be a legal document that distributes assets, but a document that distributes among the deceased’s heirs and close friends the intangible lessons of living and loving learned in a lifetime; the acquired wisdom and cautionary tales born of experience and meant to be passed on to spouses, children, grandchildren, friends and even business associates.
Ethical Wills Have a History
The earliest models of “ethical wills” are ancient; their roots are deep in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and in the Christian Old Testament. Recorded in Genesis is a letter from a dying Jacob — considered a patriarch — to his sons that is frequently cited as the first “ethical will.” Jacob cites his sons’ strengths and weaknesses and instructs them — and all Hebrews — about living a good life. This may have developed into the Hebrew tradition called Zava’ah — the passing of values from one generation to the next.
As early as 1050 AD, medieval “wills” and other communications from the deceased cautioned loved ones to “think not of evil” or “make books thy companions.” Such cautions and insights, developed in and by the victories and defeats of historic times, still have a place in the 21st century when life can be tumultuous, temptations sweet, and plans fragile.
What Goes Into an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter?
The lessons of life written in the legacy letters of today are worthy and valuable gifts of guidance, solace and hope for loved ones. Legacy letters can be expressions of love, stories of mountains climbed, or warnings about the consequences of hurtful deeds, betrayal, or excess. They can recall family roots, histories, successes and failures or a faith to be shared. They can provide a final opportunity for the author to express regret for any pain he or she may have caused, and a chance to request forgiveness. They can be a simple story of the benefits of a life lived — simply.
As a sidebar to a traditional will, the ethical will can provide a moral compass for heirs inheriting a business or wealth and position. It can teach the lessons learned by struggling to live a loving and good life — and even the effects of failing.
Some legacy letters are not intended to be read after the writer has died or is elderly. Rather, they are the wisdom learned and love shared while the writer is still alive. Pregnant women have written letters to their unborn children expressing their joyful anticipation of motherhood, the lessons they wish to share, and their hopes and dreams for their child. Shortly after he was sworn in as President of the United States, Barack Obama wrote a letter to his two daughters, Sasha, who was 7, and Malia, then 10 years old. He wrote of their obligation “…to give back to the country that has given them so much… and their obligation to themselves…because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.”
Legacy letters and ethical wills are a 3,500-year-old tradition of sharing, loving, and cautioning. It is a tradition of humanity at its most honest and courageous. Triumphs and failures are part of the message. Sins can be shared; forgiveness can be sought; and the lessons of living can be learned.
Where to Find Guidance for Writing Your Own
Many on- and off-line booksellers and libraries offer “how-to” books that provide instructions for writing and sharing ethical wills and legacy letters. These books also offer historical and modern examples. Legacy letters and ethical wills are also the subjects of several inspirational books. There are legacy letter clubs that provide advice and support for writers and even public readings of legacy letters. A quick search of the web should be helpful in taking the first step towards writing a legacy letter or ethical will to share with those you love.