Ethical Wills and “Legacy Letters” – an Overview

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It’s been a few years (3 ½)  since I’ve written on this topic, and a colleague recently asked me to speak on this at an event this fall.   The fact is, I think writing an ethical will is another way of imparting meaning into our lives – whether we are young and healthy and writing to our young children about what we hold dear and hope to carry into their future, or we are old and sick and recording more of a legacy of a life lived.   In my previous blog post, I described five different approaches to writing an ethical will: an explanation; an expectation; an affirmation; an historical document (think genealogy or heirlooms); and a statement of values.

In today’s post, I’m focusing on the last approach – a statement of values.  An ethical will in this context is essentially a document which can serve to identify those values, that “something” to live for, which has sustained the author and given meaning and texture to the tapestry of one’s life.

The ethical will or legacy letter is the big picture view of what can be encompassed in estate planning.  Keep in mind that the majority of Americans die without any estate plan in place.  Many of those folks might simply respond to a question about any need for planning with a retort “I’ll be dead, so I won’t care” – but I think there is some fear lurking behind that otherwise lackadaisical sounding statement. . .

If one chooses to engage in estate planning by executing: powers of attorney which name others to act on our behalf in the event we are unable (which may include a conversation and some direction about how money should be spent for one’s care); a living will to express our end of life health care preferences; and a will which sets forth how our estate will be distributed then  — is it really much of a stretch to go from identifying what you need to live to identify something to live for? I think not!

Here is a link to a website with some touching examples of ethical wills written by a variety of people.   What I am suggesting here is that the ethical will can help us to live life more fully – read: by preparing to die – and as preparation to face the rest of one’s life, with whatever level of fear, exhilaration or trepidation that entails.

So here are some ideas to employ for that statement of values:

Describe who you have been or who you are now in relationship to your family of origin, your family of creation and perhaps your family of choice;

  • Write about those things that you hold most dear, what you are grateful for and perhaps also the things you regret;
  • Describe those principles, rituals, or teachings, etc., which have been important to you and explain why they hold such meaning to you; and
  • Write about aspects of your life and your values that demonstrate the meaning of your life, the experience of that meaning and how you have constructed the meaning(s) over the course of your life.

These are just a few examples of how, in the creative act of putting into words one’s life story, or describing the values one holds dear, one can construct a broader meaning and see connections of the disparate or seemingly disconnected parts of a life in new ways.  The context or impetus for telling one’s story may be significant to the context of the story or perhaps not at all.  Constructing a life story – even if it is only an early part of a life – is an example of how we as human are engaged in the search for meaning.  I have always been fond of Ernest Becker’s term for our species – homo poetica or “man the meaning maker.”

This search for meaning, as well as our attempts to construct and our longing to impart meaning, can be a very useful tool for us at any age.  The ethical will as an example can help us integrate our life’s experiences and help us see the “big picture” of the meaning of our life and the lives of others as well.  It reminds me of Viktor Frankl and his logotherapy, based on “will to meaning.”   Each of us, no matter what is the ease or difficulty we face in our lives, remain free to find the meaning in our own life.  Writing an ethical will can help us construct that meaning.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

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