Which “Will” are you missing from your estate plan?

You’ve heard of the living will. You’ve heard of the last will and testament. Have you heard of an ethical will? This blog explains what an ethical will is, why it is useful, and how to make one.

Your living will directs your physicians and family to either pull the plug or continue life sustaining support. Your last will nominates your executor and bequests your assets and property to your beneficiaries. Your ethical will informs, educates, and advises your loved ones about your values.

The oldest known ethical will was the blessing Jacob gave to Joseph. Jacob begins with a statement of his faith. “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…”- Genesis 48:15 Jacob continues, “the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” – Genesis 48:16 This second part of the blessing is the wishes and hopes Jacob has for his grandchildren. The traditional blessing served as an ethical will then and continued in England.

In England prior to the 18 century it was common to include a statement of faith in the preamble of a last Will and testament. Ethical wills are not always religious. Some values serve to inspire children and grandchildren to carry on family wealth, success, or reputation. Steven Covey is well know for his philosophy “to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy.”

Writing an ethical will is useful for your loved ones whether you are wealthy or whether your assets are modest. You might model your ethical will after the decedent in Brewster’s millions to teach beneficiaries that money doesn’t equal happiness. It might be used to remind the family that there is no inheritance because the assets were used to pay for vacations and education.

An ethical will can be written in your last will but it isn’t required. We discourage writing statements about what you hope or wish in a will because some individuals confuse precatory statements with words used primarily to effect the transfer of ownership of assets or property. Instead, your ethics and values should be written in a document separate from the last will. Making two documents- an ethical will and a last will – make it clear which statements are legally binding and which are not.