Never Underestimate the Power of Words

Physician's Money Digest, August31 2003, Volume 10, Issue 16

There is a different type of willgaining popularity today. It'scalled an "ethical will"; it's awritten expression of your mostimportant values, beliefs, life lessons,wishes, blessings, and hopes to sharewith your family, friends, and community.Whereas a legal will bestowsyour financial resources, an ethicalwill bestows your intimate feelingsand allows you to pass on your spirituallegacy to your loved ones. Ideally,the ethical will may also help make apatient's medical intentions and prioritiesmore clear. As a patient oncestated, "When you know what's importantto you, it helps you makemedical treatment decisions."


"On a certain level,ethical wills are allsimilar.Yet on anotherlevel, each will is asunique as a snow-flake," says BarryBaines, MD, a familyphysician and leading authority onethical wills. In addition to his workas medical director of UCare Minnesotaand associate medical directorof Hospice of the Twin Cities, Dr.Baines is CEO of the Legacy Center(, an organizationthat offers a range of servicesand resources for those interested increating a spiritual legacy.

Ethical Wills: PuttingYour Values on Paper

Dr. Baines has developed severalself-help print and software resourcesfor creating ethical wills andin 2002 authored (PerseusPublishing). How did he become aleading authority on the subject? Dr.Baines first read about ethical willsin the 1980s. Later, when his fatherwas diagnosed with cancer in 1990,Dr. Baines asked him to write a letterexplaining what he consideredmost important in life. At the time,however, Dr. Baines didn't think ofhis request as an "ethical" will.

Then in 1997, during a hospiceteam meeting, the case of a patientnamed Dennis became a turningpoint in Dr. Baines' work andcareer. In his 40s, Dennis was dyingof cancer and worried that he wouldvanish without having left a mark onthe world. Dr. Baines mentioned anethical will to the chaplain workingwith Dennis, and according to Dr.Baines, "Dennis grabbed on to theidea the way a drowning man woulda lifejacket. Something so simplehad such an impact. "That really washow I got involved."


Although ethical wills are still relativelyunheard of in the medicalworld, they're not new. The HebrewBible first described ethical wills3000 years ago (Genesis 49). Referencesto this tradition are alsofound in the Christian Bible (John15-18) and in other cultures. Initially,ethical wills were transmitted orally.Over time, however, the spoken wordwas replaced by the written word.

Today, people aren't waiting untilthe end of their lives to write an ethicalwill. Instead, they're writing ethicalwills after certain transition periods(eg, marriage, the birth of a baby,graduation, etc). These wills are usuallyshared with family while thewriter is still alive. This modern-dayversion of the ethical will is startingto gain popularity. "The awareness islow; however, it's increasing prettydramatically," Dr. Baines said. "It'sonly been in the past 5 to 10 yearsthat it's been popularized."


Once physicians learn aboutethical wills, their reactions areusually extremely positive, Dr.Baines said. It seems there is aplace for ethical wills in physicians'personal and professional lives.Personally, an ethical will can beamong the most cherished andmeaningful gifts a physician canleave to their family. Professionally,it can be a wonderfully therapeuticand significant exercise they canrecommend to their patients.

"Clearly, there's a movement toinclude a spiritual dimension inpart of medical care," Dr. Bainessaid, emphasizing the definition ofspiritual as "meaningful and signifi-cant" and not necessarily "religious.""Spirituality plays an importantrole. It can affect health in apositive way. We're going to seemore of this, and physicians need toget comfortable with it. Physiciansshouldn't be sitting with the patientand writing the will, but they can beinformative on the matter."

Despite all of Dr. Baines' experiencewith end-of-life issues, he stillfinds himself deeply affected by theethical wills he uses as examples inhis work, particularly 1 from a 29-year-old woman who died of cancer."I've read it hundreds of timesand I still can't get through it withoutKleenex in my hand. It's just sopowerful." In addition, Dr. Bainessays that the 1990 letter from hisfather is "the most cherished gift"that he has from his father.

So, while a last will and testamentwill address your financial legacy,don't forget about what really matterswhen it comes to what you'll leaveyour family after you're gone. Formore information on ethical wills, call612-333-2833 or visit