Ethical Wills 101

An ethical will? What in the world is that?

An ethical will is a way for older adults to leave a legacy, similar to a memoir or spiritual autobiography. It is a document designed to pass on values and life lessons from one generation to the next. Older adult ministry leaders, teachers, and clergy need to know what ethical wills are and how to help the older adults they serve to develop them.

An ethical will is not the same as a legal will or a living will. An ethical will, unlike a legal will, doesn’t mention monetary gifts or the distribution of assets. It doesn’t have legal standing. Instead of detailing instructions about tangible assets, an ethical will is about sharing the qualities of life that have brought meaning and happiness to the writer. An ethical will is not a living will, which seeks to define the medical care people receive when they are unable to make decisions for themselves.

Even the term ethical is a little misleading. While an ethical will is composed of ethical values, it is more about lessons, blessings, joys, hopes for the future, love, forgiveness of others, and memories. It is about sharing and celebrating relationships -- usually across generations. An ethical will is not held privately, the contents revealed only after death. Instead, an ethical will is designed to be shared in a person’s lifetime. And unlike a living will, an ethical will is more about how a person has lived rather than about how a person wishes to die.

Writing an ethical will is not a new idea. An ethical will actually appears in the both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis 49, Jacob calls his sons by name, speaks of their relationships, and talks of the things that they have shared in common. In the Gospel of John, chapter 16, Jesus expresses his hopes for his disciples and teaches them how to live their lives. Perhaps the best example of an ethical will is the much-loved Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Jesus lovingly leaves behind a lesson on the best ways to live and shares with his disciples the ways God has blessed him and will bless them.

The practice of writing an ethical will was popular among European Jews during the middle ages. Often, Jewish parents would create ethical wills when they had no tangible possessions to pass on. Medieval Hebrew literature contains many great examples of ethical wills, which served as models through the ages.

The practice of writing ethical wills grew in popularity in modern times with the publication of Dr. Andrew Weil’s book, Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being. Dr. Weil promoted the practice of writing an ethical will as a way of linking a person to his/her familial and cultural history, as a good exercise to clarify ethical and spiritual values, and as a healthy way to communicate a legacy to future generations.

A typical ethical will contains such elements as a person’s most cherished beliefs, descriptions of acts of service that expressed values, lessons learned in life -- particularly from experience or from relatives, funny or instructive memories, or items for which a person is grateful. Many ethical will writers really enjoy the process of writing the will. In fact, many people elicit the assistance of others in compiling lists of their beliefs. They may ask people to remind them how they have been in service to others, or get suggestions about what lessons might be nice to share with others.

The next step is to decide who should receive the ethical will. The question usually is posed this way: “Who would most appreciate sharing this item with me? Who would most treasure this gift? Who am I already connected with who shares this value?” The process doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. When a person has reflected and made decisions about what should be a part of the ethical will, then recording it and sharing it with loved ones follows. Recording it can be in various forms -- from a letter form to a short video.

One creative form of an ethical will is a collection of family recipes, not only recorded, but also taught to younger family members. This was the form of an ethical will that was shared by a French master chef with her family. She shared the recipes of her Paris-born aunt with her grandchildren and their friends by making videos of the recipe preparation and leaving copies of the videos for their children.

Ethical will writing is a great tool for church leaders to use in ministering with older adults. Adults in the final third of their lives sometimes struggle with their purpose and meaning in life. Sometimes they feel useless because they can no longer perform duties and live out responsibilities they previously performed. Many worry about becoming a burden to others. Writing an ethical will helps them understand they still possess gifts of value in their lessons, memories, and service.

Helping older adults create ethical wills can actually become an intergenerational ministry. Younger people can operate audio or video recording equipment if older adults wish to record their wills. If the older adults prefer to write their ethical wills, then the younger people can help gather materials or even set up a website or blog.

Church leaders might want to offer a short-term class in ethical-will writing or to purchase one of the commercially available programs that employs writing prompts; then schedule sessions with an ethical will coach to walk older adults through the process. Both the classes and programmed ethical wills could then be offered as part of a short-term educational emphasis on legacy-leaving. Other classes that might be a part of the emphasis could include obituary writing, funeral pre-planning, and spiritual autobiographies. Larger churches could sponsor a weekend retreat for older adults with workshops on each of these different forms of legacy-leaving.

An ethical can become a great tool for older adult ministry if it is presented wisely. When it is, a person will not have to ask, “Ethical will, what in the world is that?” It will be, “When are you starting on one of your own?”

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