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

By Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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