How to Write an Ethical Will

Few people even know what an “ethical will” is, although it might be the most profound legacy you can leave behind. Learn how it differs from a traditional or living will, and see some prompts to get you started.

Most of us have at least given some thought to drawing up a traditional will, and perhaps even have a living will, which states your directives regarding end-of-life care. But few people even know what an “ethical will” is, although it might be the most profound legacy you can leave behind.

Indeed, according to Jo Kline Cebuhar, author of So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will, this record of life lessons, wishes, and dreams—intended to be read by loved ones after your death—may last even longer than a financial reward. Not a legal document, an ethical will is a way of passing down what’s meaningful to you. You can share your thoughts in a single letter or video, says Cebuhar, or “you can make it a serial exercise—write a note on your kid’s class picture every year, or add something personal to holiday letters before you stick them in a folder.” No matter which method you choose, here are some tips on how to go about creating it:

  • If you feel blocked, start with a quotation from someone else that sums up your worldview, and explain why—or simply introduce it by writing, “Other people found the words I can’t find. This is how I look at life.”
  • Pick a meaningful moment in your personal history—when we landed on the moon, the first time you fell in love—and write about how it affected you.
  • Think of three words that capture your essence. Elaborate on them with stories from your life and your hopes for the future.
  • Embellish a family tree or photo album with anecdotes. Describe what each person taught you or a vivid memory of him or her.
  • Find a song that communicates a sentiment you want to share.
  • Go beyond pen and paper. Create a PowerPoint slide show, record your own videos,  or find your own way to express yourself. For inspiration, watch Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture,” a recorded message to family and students made by the Carnegie Mellon professor when he was terminally ill and subsequently made into a best-selling book.

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