Ethical Wills: A Tool for Resolving Unfinished Business

Article excerpt

Los Angeles Times writer Elizabeth Mehren observed in a 2002 article that because of events like the September 11 attacks, "More people are drafting 'ethical wills' in which they leave words of wisdom as well as their possessions to their heirs. Boomers-members of a generation that long has prided itself on doing things differently-are embracing ethical wills as a way to put a-personal mark on life's grand finale."

An ethical will is a personal statement from a parent or grandparent, an aunt, uncle or friend to those loved ones who are important to the writer. Ethical wills are not legally binding and do not include a list of material assets. Usually they contain what the writers believe may be their most important assets: their values, principles, hopes, family stories and histories, explanations for life choices and lessons learned. British legal authority Barry Baines, in his book Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 2001), as well as on his website (, states that an ethical will can be written at any time but is often begun during one of life's turning points or in the midst of a life-changing situation, such as a life-threatening illness. Attorneys often recommend writing one at the same time one is completing a will of inheritance.


According to Rabbi Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stamfer in their book So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991), the tradition of leaving a spiritual legacy either in the form of a codicil to a conventional will or as a separate document has its roots in the Bible and the Talmud and also exists in Islam and Christianity. They explain that early examples were conveyed orally, and later generations committed them to writing.

Riemer and Stamfer's book includes ethical wills preserved from the medieval and Renaissance periods and from the Holocaust, in addition to modern wills. One very powerful will they include was written by Shulamit Rabinovitch on June 6,1944, to her sons who had escaped to America during the Holocaust. "My dear, fortunate sons! It will not be long before they finish us off. On one hand it is good, on the other it is bad, to die right now. Good that we have lived to see the end come; and bad to die now a moment before the redemption. Our greatest consolation and good fortune is that you are not here."

Rabinovitch advises, "Dear children, don't take foolish things to heart, be happy, contented people; be good human beings and loyal sons of your oppressed nation. Never abandon your land or your people. Fight for freedom and social justice." She concludes, "... and don't mourn for us with tears and words, but rather with deeds. I regret that I cannot communicate everything we have experienced. You will probably hear and know something; but whatever you hear and know the reality is a thousand times more horrible and more painful.-Words don't exist to tell it, no colors exist to represent it. Too young you have become orphans. But better to be Orphans than to be with father and mother here."


My interest in ethical wills developed when preparing a presentation for grandparents of interfaith, intercultural grandchildren. Writing an ethical will was suggested as a way of transmitting one's heritage, traditions and values to one's children and grandchildren. The idea of ethical wills became even more personal when my sister died of cancer, leaving two young children who will never know, except from family, who she was-her values, her life and what she stood for. Her untimely death rekindled the cloudy and distant memories of my own mother, who died at age 43. How wonderful it would have been had she left us an ethical will explaining who she was and what she wanted us to know and remember about her.

The idea to share this vehicle of personal testaments through classes soon became a passion of mine. …