A fresh definition of inheritance comes into vogue
Ethical wills date back at least to the 1970s, but there are ancient precedents for elders handing down advice and blessings to younger generations.
Legally, Breck Arnzen and Lani Peterson-Arnzen had covered all the bases when they wrote their will - everything from guardianship to inheritance for their four children.
But two years ago they realized something was missing when a friend told them about the concept of an ethical will - a love letter, many would say - in which people pass down the experiences and values that have infused their lives with meaning.
Within a few months, the couple had created a 20-page "living legacy," as Ms. Peterson-Arnzen calls it. They plan to update it every five years or so, but its value to the family was immediate. Instead of tucking it away until after they're gone, they shared it with their children, then 7 to 14 years old.
"Doing it ... really clarified for us what is important and has made us walk our talk a little bit more," Peterson-Arnzen says in a phone interview from her home in Andover, Mass. "It's led us to help [our children] get to know us in a way they might not have."
Many cultures have precedents for elders handing down advice and blessings to younger generations. In 1050, for example, a Jewish father wrote a letter for his son to read after he died, extolling the importance of a debt-free life.
In the United States, the modern trend of writing ethical wills dates back at least to the 1970s, but some observers say the trend began to gain momentum after the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, propelled people to express more explicitly how much they cherish their families.
Barry Baines, a doctor in Minneapolis, says that hits to his ethical-wills website doubled to about 250 a day after 9/11, and doubled again in 2002 after he published a book on the subject (see box on page 12). His interest inethical wills started about eight years ago when he met a hospice patient who felt he had nothing to pass on to his family because he hadn't been materially successful. Dr. Baines and the chaplain helped him write an ethical will, and "his spiritual suffering disappeared," Baines says. "The guy grabbed onto it the way a drowning person would grab on to a life preserver."
A growing number of estate planners, too, find that clients want their wills to have a more soulful component. Timothy Mininger, a certified senior adviser and vice president at Univest Corp. in Souderton, Pa., recalls one client who finished her will but felt adesire to express her deeply held religious beliefs to her children and grandchildren.
"Many people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s see lifestyles they don't recognize, values that are much different from theirs, and it's somewhat distressing to them," Mr. Mininger says. While the intent of ethical wills is not to rule from the grave, people want a way to communicate their wishes and closely held values for posterity.
Now, Mininger urges clients to write an ethical will first. That helps people create "their last will and testament with a lot more peace."
Because such personal writing doesn't come easily for many, a number of paid consultants and nonprofit services have cropped up to offer help. "Don't look at it as a daunting task," says Karen Russell, executive director of National Grief Support Services in Los Angeles. "Just do little bits at a time ... even if it means taking out the video camera and just recording a little piece here or there while it's fresh in your mind. Then you can go back and pull them together."
Some people choose to keep their ethical wills in video form, but consultants often encourage writing because of the thought process it involves, and because video recordings may be harder for future generations to access as technology changes. Whatever the form, an ethical will can be kept with the last will and testament, but some choose to give it its own place - perhaps even a special box - so they can show it to family members or update it more easily.
Susan Turnbull of Wenham, Mass., interviews clients and then works with them to edit the transcripts into a written document. But she firmly believes that even the most non-writerly folks can put together their own ethical wills. On a recent morning, she traveled to the idyllic harbor town of Marion, Mass., to teach a workshop.
"We can see our financial wealth, and we do a good job in this society of managing and transmitting that wealth - but [ethical wills are about] your stories, your wisdom ... what you love and what you feel," she said to her small audience, which ranged in age from 40s to 80s. "How do we transmit this kind of personal wealth?"
On the green chalkboard, she wrote a few starter sentences to get them thinking about what they most wanted to share: "I love... I value... I am committed to... I believe..."
During the writing exercise, octogenarian Eunice Manduca alternated between thoughtful gazing and fast-paced notetaking. "Just seeing the list [of questions] makes you think about things you haven't thought of in years," she said with a smile of wonderment. It's too late to recover some of her late husband's family history - all she knows is that they were from Italy - but she wants to give her seven children as much knowledge of their heritage as she can.
Other participants say their grown children have been asking them for years to record their personal stories and the wisdom they have gleaned. And one says she especially wants to share how she's seen God working in her life on a daily basis, evidenced by what she calls "IBMs - itty-bitty miracles."
When the Arnzens were settling their parents' estates, they wished they had had a more personal document to help keep in the forefront what the material possessions symbolized. They also wanted to convey to their children how much they cherish marriage - and their support for any life partnership the children choose in the future if it's based on true love and commitment. Their ethical will includes the story of how Lani's mother paused before giving her blessing to their engagement, to make Breck promise he would never intentionally hurt her in any way.
"If we were not there to extract that promise from [our children's] intended spouses," Peterson-Arnzen says, "[we hope] that they would value themselves strongly enough that they wouldn't settle for anyone who didn't respect them and care for them physically, emotionally, spiritually.... We shared so many values in that one story."
• Randy Dotinga contributed to this story from San Diego.
"Ethical wills can't cover everything, but they can capture the spark of your soul," says Susan Turnbull, a workshop leader who helps write what are also known as "personal legacy letters."
The contents (and length) will depend on the intended audience and when the writer plans to share the letter. But to get started, Ms. Turnbull suggests considering questions such as these:
• What do you want your loved ones to know about your family history?
• What is your vision for your heirs' use of their inheritance?
• Have you made mistakes for which you want to ask forgiveness? Or is there forgiveness you want to offer?
• Why have you made certain decisions about your estate, such as donating a portion of it to charity?
• How does your use of money reflect your most important values?
• What are some values and life lessons you'd like to share regarding education, the workplace, marriage, and parenting?
• What have your friendships meant to you over the years?
Your Ethical Will, maintained by Susan Turnbull, www.yourethicalwill.com
Ethicalwill.com, maintained by Barry Baines, www.ethicalwill.com
"Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper," by Barry Baines; "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations," by Rachel Freed.
Guidelines for preparing an ethical will are also available by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to Jewish Ethical Wills Society, 8673 Flamingo Dr., Boca Raton, FL 33496