An ethical will or legacy letter: Another way to be remembered

Connecting generations

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.

You probably have a legal last will and testament. But do you have an ethical will? Do you even know what an ethical will (aka legacy letter) is? I didn’t until I met Cathy Manning, ethical will facilitator and St. Louis Park resident who explained to me how such wills leave a legacy worth more than money, property or possessions. If you want to be remembered for more than a life insurance payout, you may want to learn about them, too.

What is an ethical will?

A legacy letter isn’t a legal instrument. Likewise, it’s not a resume of accomplishments or a family history. But it’s more than a memoir. So what is it?

“An ethical will is a way to connect the generations and preserve your values for family, friends and the community,” Manning says. “An ethical will is a way to be remembered. It is simply a heartfelt letter summarizing and sharing your beliefs, life lessons, blessings, wisdom, hopes and forgiveness.”

The message is less about the facts of your life, and more about the meaning of your life.

In short, it is a written record of who you are, what you have learned in life and what you stand for.

The term “ethical will” often confuses or misleads people, according to Manning. It can sound overly formal, legalistic and moralistic. That’s why the term “legacy letter” is gaining in popularity. Manning feels it more accurately describes the intent and nature of the document.

Why do people leave a legacy letter?

Everyone wants to be remembered somehow. We all want our lives to have a point. We want to leave a mark that lasts longer than we do, to make a difference for the future and to make our years on earth matter. That’s why legacy letters are becoming increasingly popular with those over 50.

Of course, people write their own ethical will for different and very personal reasons. Some find peace of mind and satisfaction by identifying their deepest beliefs and by putting their values on paper.

For most, however, their legacy letter isn’t just about themselves. It is intended as a meaningful gift to the most meaningful people in their lives.

They agree with Rev. Billy Graham’s admonition, “The greatest legacy you can pass on is your character and your faith.” For many, an ethical will is a vehicle for handing down their “life smarts,” moral lessons and practical advice based on a lifetime of experience.

Whatever the motivation, the good news is that ethical wills are for everyone. You don’t have to be a lawyer, a gifted writer or an exceptionally deep thinker. You just have to be honest, truthful and brave enough for self-disclosure.

Ethical wills are affordable and accessible to anyone regardless of social, cultural or economic position. And you don’t even have to die to pass on this legacy.

Not a death document anymore

Historically, ethical wills were end-of-life documents usually accompanied by a traditional legal will and testament. Today, legacy letters are passed on at any time — especially at times of celebration, milestone events or other special occasions. Popular transmittal points include birthdays, anniversaries, a child’s wedding, when children leave home, the birth of a grandchild, a divorce or a time of significant loss. Some engaged couples even exchange ethical wills as a foundation for a lasting union.

For many people, it is more meaningful and more fun to pass on their elder wisdom while they are still alive to see the reaction. Of course, there is no single, right way to make public one’s ethical will. Likewise, there is no one right format or way to write it in the first place.

Varied formats and content

Every ethical will is different. Unlike legal wills, ethical wills don’t all look alike.

Some are simple. Some are elaborate. Length varies from a few paragraphs to a few pages to a full-length book.

Some ethical wills take the form of a simple letter that is laminated for preservation. Others are presented in folders. Still others are designed as hardcover books, complete with quotes, photos, illustrations and, sometimes, recipes. Not surprising, more and more ethical wills today are presented in an electronic or video format.

While most legal wills still follow standard (and boring) structure, ethical wills can be as original, unusual and quirky as the author’s creativity allows. Who says a legacy letter can’t take the form of a poem — or comic book?

Many ethical wills concentrate on the author’s history. Others emphasize emotions. Some are serious and personal. Others may be light and broad. The possibilities are open-ended.

That’s why Manning recommends that would-be-will-writers study a number of examples, before drafting their own legacy letter.

Help is available

Manning is one of a limited number of trained ethical will facilitators in the nation. But the number is growing as interest increases.

Manning’s career path to becoming a legacy counselor has been a logical progression. Trained as an accountant, she became an independent insurance agent specializing in long term care insurance.

Increased exposure to senior issues eventually led her to seek specialized training from LivingWisely (a division of Celebrations of Life Services) in Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to legacy navigator training. Barry Baines, M.D., who is Vice President of LivingWisely, is recognized as the founder of the ethical will movement and pioneered its use in hospice and palliative care.

After completing her training at LivingWisely, Manning has now embarked on an encore career as a legacy journey facilitator. In her new role, she offers clients a variety of opportunities to develop a personalized message of posterity.

As Manning explains, “Older adults have stories to tell and wisdom to share.” In addition to a regular blog, her services include presentations, workshops, retreats and individualized legacy preservation support.

Just as anyone can write a regular will, but most seek guidance from a professional attorney — anyone can write their own ethical will; but more and more people appreciate the help of a professional facilitator.

A final word

In his latest book, Life Reimagined, life coach Richard Leider says that each of us is an “experiment of one.” Ethical will advocates agree that your experiement — your experience — is one of a kind in the universe and your legacy should be too.

But legacies don’t just happen. They are intentional. Your life is a story worth telling. It won’t be heard, however, unless you tell it.

An ethical will can allow you to be the author of your own legacy. Where there is “a will,” there’s a way to be remembered.

Bob Ramsey(†) was a lifelong educator, freelance writer and advocate for vital aging. Ramsey passed away in 2020. This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Good Age.

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