A Note on Ethical Wills

Physician's Money Digest, September 2007, Volume 14, Issue 9

An idea that has been gaining traction among the public as well as the legal and financial planning community is that of a so-called "ethical will." In a nutshell, this is a letter to your legatees, family, and friends, which summarizes in your own words what you have learned over your lifetime and defines your legacy. This document stands in addition to, and sometimes in support of, the standard legal document that expresses wishes about the dispersal of the estate.

It's an ancient practice to pass on the precious gift of ideas and feelings so that interested parties, separated by time, can be connected to who you were. It is a type of institutional memory recorded for posterity. It is a chance to insert positive emotion and wisdom into what is usually the grim affair of mourning and the sorting out of your estate.

It's never too soon to start. And you can always recast it as your life goes on. And for that surprisingly high percentage of doctors who somehow have never gotten around to composing a will as part of your financial plan, this could be the catalyst that gets you started. Keep in mind that if you wait too long, you might lose the ability to sum up the fullest expression of yourselves.

There is also the wonderfully therapeutic aspect of writing this all out. Those of you who follow the psychiatric literature know that writing our thoughts and feelings down can be quite an eye-opener.

Involving either your parents or your children in your process might also help facilitate the exploration and possible resolution of current issues. It gives you a nonconfrontational way to approach a tough subject if you are asking for someone else's help, for instance.

How to begin? There are no rules, so start by making a list of values, meaningful experiences, and significant people in your life. What do you hold sacred? What have you fought for? What are your fondest wishes for your children? What was the happiest day of your life? What would you like to be remembered for? Also, if you Google "ethical wills" you will get a flood of additional ideas to help.

This may all sound a bit too touchy/ feely for some, but the delineation of values and wisdom can make difficult financial decisions easier for you and your family, not only after your death, but in the years to come. This modest activity can enrich your family's life as well as your financial plan. Try it.