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Ethical Wills

(Also known as Legacy Letters, Legacy Statements, Life Letters, Heart Wills, Ending Notes, Love Wills, Testaments)

Adapted from an essay by Pat McNees on her website.

Your last will and testament disposes of all your earthly goods ' who gets which valuables, what you want your survivors to have. Your living will spells out the kind of medical care you want when you can no longer care for yourself (should they shut off the ventilator when all hope seems lost, or should they do everything possible to save you?).

Your letter of intent (see Kristie Miller's Letter of Intent), spells out the things that would make you happy should you experience a disabling health event, so that you can't care for yourself and might not be able to express yourself.

Your life letter or ethical will (let's come up with a better term for this heartfelt message to your survivors) tells your survivors what you want them to know. It conveys expressions of love, blessings, personal and family stories you treasure; it articulates what you value and want to be remembered for, what you hope your survivors learn from you or want your children and grandchildren never to forget. This message can be expressed in a one-page letter, a collection of messages, as a videotape of you expressing yourself (even as a newspaper article. It could involve writing memoirs or an autobiography (see link below to an Atlanta Journal story).

The Financial Planning Association reports from survey results that these "non-financial leave-behinds" are ten times more important to most people than their parents' financial legacy.

Some Exercises You Might Try

Legacy letters are often written at transition points such as marriage, childbirth, a major illness, or simply arriving at that point when you see more life behind you than in front of you. Candidly assessing your life experiences and values, trying to make sense of the world or your life, reminding your loved ones and friends how you lived your life, and figuring out where your values came from and which values and life lessons you want to pass on to the next generation can energize you and change the way you see your life.

Such a letter can be both a vehicle for self-exploration and a gift to yourself and loved ones. You may share it while you are alive, or leave it to be read when you are gone. It can be as short as one page or as long as a full memoir or family history. Such a letter can mean worlds to survivors. A widower writing in Newsweek ("We Had the Love, But I Long for the Letters") says, "No matter how close my wife and I were, no matter how much we loved each other, and no matter how many heartwarming memories I have of our togetherness, I don't have any tangible record of her heart speaking to mine. And how I wish I did....When Marion was alive, I never gave it a thought. Now I wish I had her words to read and reread....I have pictures–even a couple of collections of slides on videocassette. What I don't have, in black or blue on white, are her thoughts."