How to Write an Ethical Will: Step-By-Step

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What you bring to the world each day is just as important as what you leave behind. Though physical objects and possessions can carry your spirit on for your loved ones, perhaps you wish there was a way for your heart and values to stick around a bit longer, too. Ethical wills serve as a significant and centuries-old practice in the Jewish community as a way of doing just that. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

We’ll help you determine if an ethical will is something that would be right for you, as well as how to write a meaningful one to leave behind for your family. Though will-writing or death planning of any kind may be difficult, it’s possible to create something powerful and worthwhile, despite any fears you may have.

Tip: If you're interested in other unique ways to continue your or a loved one's legacy, you can consider a custom urn from a store like Foreverence or even have a memorial diamond made from ashes with a company like Eterneva.

What is an Ethical Will?

Like traditional wills, the intent of ethical wills is also to pass things on to others. However, instead of tangible objects, money, or property, the focus is on the intangible. Ethical wills are sometimes called spiritual or legacy letters. Jews have used ethical wills for centuries as a crucial part of their funeral traditions. 

Ethical wills help elders articulate and pass on deeply held familial and spiritual values and beliefs. Though these letters typically came from parents and are presented to their immediate children, these wills have become more modern and reaching. Now, ethical wills may be presented in the form of audio, video, or other formats, and are given to wider circles of family, friends, and loved ones. 

Step 1: Pray Or Reflect on Your Values and Beliefs

There are a number of reasons to create an ethical will. To best figure out your intentions as well as what you’d like to say, it’s important to take a considerable amount of time praying or reflecting on your values and beliefs. 

You likely have a few ideas right off the bat. If you hit a wall and feel like you’re not sharing enough, simply consider some significant moments in your life.

 It may help to ask yourself:

  • What are some challenges I’ve faced? How did I overcome them? How did I fail?
  • What do I wish I learned about myself or life sooner?
  • How do I treat my loved ones? How do I treat my enemies? How did I want people to treat me?
  • Who or what is most important to me and why?
  • What do I wish I could have done differently?

Step 2: Write, Record, or Draw

With any project, of course, starting is often the hardest part. What you write first does not necessarily have to serve as the beginning of your ethical will or even make it into it at all. Give yourself the freedom to figure it out as you go. 

In addition to the questions in the above section, it may also help you to consider some of the main reasons Jews write ethical wills as you begin writing, recording, or even drawing aspects of your ethical will. 

According to The Jewish Ethical Wills Project, it comes down to few different factors:

  • To reflect on how you have lived and how you wish to live
  • To give and ask for love
  • To pass on what you don’t want forgotten
  • To forgive and be forgiven
  • To remember and be remembered
  • To leave behind something personal and distinctive for friends and family

As you plan and keep the above in mind, you also should refrain from putting pressure on yourself to make the first draft perfect. Again, letting yourself freely express and write out some ideas may lend some inspiration and creativity that your piece will surely benefit from. You can always adjust and cut back on content later, but try to put together as much as you can at first. 

You may also choose to create an ethical will in a few different formats for your family members. For example, creating a recording of you reading will likely become a prized item of loved ones of all ages or who have difficulty with vision (or simply reading a lot at once). You may also choose to create an illustrated or shortened version for younger loved ones. 

Step 3: Plan for Your Audience

Going off of the above step, you should keep your loved ones in mind as you create your ethical will. Though the will is about your values and beliefs, it’s arguably much more about creating a gift and leaving a legacy to others. It may help you to consider your family tree or even create one as a visual aid or as part of your gift. This doesn’t mean that you should oversimplify your sentiments or purposely leave out certain details. On the contrary, you should aim to be as sincere and transparent as possible. 

Planning for your audience should also cause you to consider the format in which you present your ethical will, as discussed above. You should also think about what your audience may benefit from hearing. For example, your children may be married with families and may not necessarily identify as much with lessons you learned in your 20s.

However, if you already have grandchildren, they’ll likely enjoy some sage advice. You may also be interested in these other legacy projects.   

Step 4: Read, Listen, and Edit

It’s OK to feel overwhelmed during the process of writing your ethical will. After all, it’s normal to feel emotional when facing your mortality in any capacity. However, taking charge of how you’re living now, as well as what you’re leaving behind to your loved ones, should help you to feel empowered. 

Try to be as patient with yourself as possible during this process. Putting too much pressure on yourself to produce anything will likely cause your mind to shut down. As you develop your ethical will, take frequent breaks and re-read or listen back to what you’ve created often. It will help you develop your flow as well as fill in any gaps. 

You may also choose to read your work aloud and consider recording yourself. Listening back to what you’ve recorded — even if you don’t plan to include it in the package to your family — can also help you continue to make final adjustments.   

As with any written work, you should also take care to check for spelling, grammar, and other types of errors. It’s likely your family will forgive you for any of these small inaccuracies, but your work will be that much more impactful the fewer it has.  

Step 5: Finalize and Store for Safekeeping

Though creating physical copies of your ethical will on elegant stationery is a nice sentiment, today’s digital storage capabilities are as user-friendly as ever. Your loved ones can always print out additional copies to have and keep with them, or even put inside a time capsule

Plus, saving your ethical will digitally can help you rest assured that your will won’t be lost or damaged. Or, there’s a much less chance of that happening if you distribute it to some trusted, tech-savvy loved ones. You may also be interested in these other tips about protecting digital assets

Ethical Will Examples

The excerpts and examples below may not perfectly capture your vision for your ethical will. However, we hope they can serve as a jumping-off point or give you some much-needed motivation or inspiration. 

Example one

Dearest family,

I love you more today than I ever have. I sit here and reflect on the daily, even momentary blessings that you’ve provided me, and I can’t help but feel as though I haven’t given you enough. With this in mind, and my remaining days on this Earth in question, I am even more motivated to give you all everything I have and to stick around for as long as I can. 

As you may know, I have a very competitive spirit. I frequently went at odds with myself to be better, do better, think better, and so on. But none of it really mattered. I didn’t want to be the best for my sake. I wanted to do all of those things for you all, and I still do. Now more than ever, though, I hope to lead a life as selflessly as possible. I hope you all strive to do the same, even at times when our humanity tells us to retreat to ourselves and cling to what we think is dear.

We have each other, and that will never change. Even through death. We are all each other’s dearest possessions…

Example two

Family,

My prayer for you now that I am gone is that you love even harder. You work even harder. You don’t let fatigue rule your decisions. You can rest when it is called for, but do not let yourselves become passive. Earn each other. Earn your blessings as much as you express gratitude for them. 

There is simply so much we can accomplish in this life if we work to maintain a pure heart and a healthy mind and body. Do not let the evils of your enemies or the circumstances of your misfortunes dampen what you believe. Tomorrow may not come for me, but it’s coming for you, and I wish you make the most of it.

I love you all forever and …

Example three

Children, friends, and family,

Do not fear anything. Try not to cry. Do not let your doubts dictate what you can or cannot do. You all are capable of miracles. Small ones, large ones — you name it. If there is anything I want these words to leave you with it is hope. It is true. Hope is dangerous. It can be incredibly painful when the universe does not deliver what you thought or tells you “no.” 

However, my family, I want you to understand that every “no” is a yes to something else. “No,” I am no longer there. “No,” that friend may not show up. “No,” that raise may not happen. “No,” your body may say to your youthful heart. But none of these “nos" matter as much as your own perseverance. 

And, furthermore, you all have each other. Support and cheer even louder for one another. And, now more than ever, even without me there, you are entering a season of reaching your potential. I just know it. You’re all going to exceed it, if you want my honest opinion. 

I pray that you do not mourn me for longer than is custom. I pray that you wake up each day excited, invigorated, and ready…

Leave a Path You’re Proud Of

An ethical will can serve as a significant part of what you leave behind for your family, friends, and future generations. It’s true that these words can last forever. How you present them can help your loved ones feel that much closer to you in your absence as well. 

Taking charge of your message, values, and beliefs now will also allow you to live that much more meaningfully. Here are some more tips for living a meaningful life. Be sure to check out the rest of Cake’s resources and end-of-life planning assets as well


Sources

  1. “The Jewish Ethical Wills Project.” The Jewish Theological Seminary. http://www.jtsa.edu/the-jewish-ethical-wills-project

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