An ethical will is used to pass on personal values, beliefs, blessings, and advice to future generations. It is a way to tell stories and share your memories.

An  ethical  will  is  not  a  legal document; it  is  distinct  from  legal  documents  like  a last will and testament or a living will (now known as advance decisions). The practice of leaving an  ethical  will  is  an  ancient  tradition referred to in the Bible and found in many cultures.

Whether you have years left to live or are facing death, you too can write a love letter to future generations. Writing skill, spelling, and penmanship don’t matter. You can scribble on a grocery bag, compose an email, record your thoughts, or sit in front of a video camera and interview yourself.

ethical wills5What matters is content – your reflections of who you were and who you became. 

What were the events that shaped you? 

What are your priorities? 

Your guiding principles? 

What  mistakes  did you make; what did you learn from them? 

What essential truths have you learned that you can pass  on  to future generations?

If  you  hope  to  be  remembered  for  who you  really  are, disclose that person. Don’t assume  others  know  your  inner self and the  challenges  you  met  and  overcame. Offer  blessings,  advice,  insights,  and  bits  of family  history  that  might  otherwise  be lost  forever.

You  might  speak  of  what  is  good  and admirable  in  each  of  your  loved ones and  of  the  gratitude  you  feel  that  each is in your life.


ethical wills 6Even  those  who  are  closely  bonded rarely express such feelings. In writing from  the  heart,  you  will  discover  more  of who  you  are  and  what  your  true legacy is;  you  will  better  come  to  understand  how  you  have  fulfilled  your purpose  and  what  you  hope  to  be  remembered for.  Whether  your  ethical  will  is  limited to  a  few  scribbled  lines,  several  pages,  or expanded  into  a  book,  there  is  great  satisfaction  in  completing  your  gift  and ensuring  its  safe  passage  to the next generation.

Ethical  wills  can  be  written  and  revealed  at any time. Some parents and grandparents  want  to  share  this information  while  they  are  still  alive  and  can engage  in  conversations about the past.

Ethical  wills  can  also  be  used  to  explain why  certain  decisions  were  made  in  a  last will  and  testament or to tie the loose ends of a life together for oneself and others. They may be written and rewritten, read aloud, or put aside to be read at a special family gathering, funeral, or other rite of passage.

“I’d  like  to  do  all  that,  but  it’s  too  late,” sighed  an  elderly  woman  who  had  lived an  exciting  life  as  a  missionary  in  China when  I  suggested  she  write  an  ethical  will.


If you feel too ill, too weak, can no longer write legibly, can’t organize your thoughts, or  don’t  know how to use a computer, enlist someone to be your scribe or recorder.

Start talking, if only for a few minutes at a time. Talk  it  out  over  a  period  of  a  few days, weeks, or even months. Hospice volunteers  relish  the  opportunity  to  help  facilitate such a life review.

If you struggle to come up with words of your own, borrow from poets, musicians, playwrights, biographers, saints, or my mother.

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Below is an excerpt from my mother’s ethical will.

“Children  tend  to  think  of  their  parents and grandparents as people who exist for and revolve  solely  around them.  Yet   adults live other lives, often unknown to their children.

My  own  parents  were  loving  and  generous  to  me,  but  other  than  a  few  brief stories,  I realize that I know little of their childhood, their inner lives, their dreams and plans, what they hoped to achieve, and what they believed they did accomplish.

How I would  cherish  a  letter  from  my  parents or my grandparents telling me about their  youthful  dreams  and hopes, their triumphs and their failures.

How did my immigrant grandparents feel when they left their childhood homes forever?

Who were my parents before they became my parents?

ethical wills99Once they were all young, full of life, eager to embrace the freedoms and promises of a still-new land. All that history is lost forever.

That’s when I realized that something was missing in my will. I needed to say more, write something that went beyond that cold, dry, legal jargon, something more than the distribution of my worldly goods.

I  wanted  to  leave  a  written  statement, a  link  to  those who had gone on before me and  to  the  generations  that  will  come  after  me. I wanted my children and my grandchildren  to  know  of  my  journey, who  I  was,  what  I  thought  and  believed.

Most of all, I wanted my family to know how much I loved them.”

Susan Dolan, Nurse and End-of-life advisor