Legal / Ethics

The ethical will: A loving legacy

Many years ago, my childless Aunt Elsie died and left me an inheritance. Surprised and grateful though I was, as I read her will I realized something important was missing: Nowhere did the will mention her personal values or spiritual beliefs, nor did it express affection for me or give me advice. I knew Aunt Elsie had cared for me, but who was she, really? What thoughts and feelings had motivated her generosity? I’ll never know.

Years later, as I completed a will and healthcare pow­er of attorney, thoughts of Aunt Elsie led me to attach an ethical will to these documents. An ethical will doesn’t deal with possessions or money. It’s a legacy of love for family and friends.

Every ethical will is unique. Many ethical wills focus on lessons learned and wisdom shared. Others describe family history and traditions, tell humorous stories, or relate more serious t ales of valor and service to others. An ethical will is not the place to rehash family feuds or deliver harsh judgments. In fact, other than to maintain a kindly tone, no rules apply. Here are suggestions for content.

Express love and gratitude

“Nah, they know I love ’em,” grumbled Ned, an elderly man who declined an offer to help him draft an ethical will. Declaring affection doesn’t always come easily. Chances are Ned felt embarrassed, afraid to appear weak or foolish, or incapable of finding words to match his feelings.

An ethical will can speak for those who care deeply but find it difficult to express themselves. Mentioning people by name and stating why each one is lovable (“Thank you, Mary, for seeing me through the dark times”) is a powerful way to atone for past negligence. Clumsy or polished, late or not, sincere declarations of love are always welcome.

Offer praise and affirmation

For those who regret missed opportunities to express praise, an ethical will can deliver a belated gift. It’s
human to want to know not only that we’re loved but what about us is lovable. Who doesn’t welcome approval for their efforts? Who isn’t curious to learn what others find admirable in them? Who wouldn’t want to learn that they are appreciated?


Using words like dependable, honest, and loyal to describe virtues in others can help them find value in themselves. Even in old age, people continue to feel profound gratitude to parents, teachers, and others who recognized their virtues and nurtured their development.

Give hope to the hopeless

An ethical will can offer hope to those feeling despair. Young people struggling to build character and conscience can benefit greatly from a respected elder’s encouraging words. Weary, discouraged older folks who believe they’ve failed themselves and others are grateful to learn how much their life mattered to someone else.

At any age, when people have made serious blunders, most are grateful for a message of hope. It takes just one person to recognize undiscovered talents and potential strengths in another, then deliver a message of hope like the one a grandson got from his grandmother: “Hang in there, Sonny. You’re a work in progress. I love you.”

Move past the past

Who hasn’t felt hurt or offended by a relative? An ethical will is a safe place to leave a message of reconciliation without replaying the past and disputing who was right and who was wrong, or insisting on apologies. “I still care about you. I’ve missed you. Can we let go of the past and focus on the present?” can comfort those looking to make peace.

More serious dysfunctional relationships exist where kin abuse or abandon each other. As years go by and people mature, the desire to restore peace and foster healing may soften hardened hearts. Even when it’s impossible to undo
a grievous offense, one can still acknowledge pain caused to others and compose a message of sorrow and regret. In an ethical will, one can leave a message for all concerned: “I forgive you. Please forgive me.”

How to get started

The best time to craft an ethical will is when you’ve lived long enough to acquire wisdom but not so long you forget what it is. If you want to create an ethical will, don’t worry if you lack writing skills. Simple words and sincere messages suffice. In preparation, take time to visit the attic of your mind to explore dusty eaves where early memories slumber and neglected feelings wait for recognition. Reflect on the intimate relationships and significant events that led you to understand the meaning and purpose of your life. Those willing to do such homework will have the ingredients for a personal masterpiece and a family heirloom.

If getting started is a problem, simply grab a sheet of paper and a pencil with an eraser. Jot down notes to expand and edit later; make an outline of topics to include. List the people you want to mention and why each one is important to you. Say what you’ve always wanted to say—what’s most important to you. Use “I” statements, not “You” statements. Know, too, that pieces of family history (scrapbooks, old photograph albums, songs, and art work) also qualify as content for ethical wills. (See When to disclose your ethical will by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Sample quotes from ethical wills

“Live your best life, be your best self, give what you wish to receive.” Matty Stepanek, age 13, wrote this when dying of a rare form of muscular dystrophy.

When 36-year-old Erin Kramp learned she had metastatic breast cancer, she felt a desire to connect more strongly with her 6-year-old daughter. From her bed, she produced a documentary of her family playing, snuggling, conversing intimately, and unabashedly expressing their love. She noted birthdays to come and left advice on everything from makeup (go lightly) to choosing a husband (pick a nice man with a backbone). Her video library lives on for her daughter and others—precious evidence of maternal love.

“We cannot change the cards we are given, just how we play the hand,” declared Randy Pausch, age 47, a professor of computer science who had terminal pancreatic cancer. He delivered his last lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” from a stage at Carnegie Mellon University. Defying his illness, after performing one-armed push-ups, he addressed students, colleagues, friends, family, and his young children who would grow up without him. Focusing on humanity rather than science, Randy shared his wisdom: “People are more important than things,” he said. “It’s not about how you achieve your dreams. It’s about how you live your life.”

Helping patients write ethical wills

Creating an ethical will can help build a lasting emotional legacy for your nearest and dearest. Writing your own ethical will is excellent preparation for helping others, including patients, do the same. The process becomes a therapeutic exercise for both nurse and patient by providing another tool for opening conversations, enhancing the relationship, and addressing personal issues in difficult times. For patients who are alert and willing but frail and easily fatigued, keep sessions short and seek aid from a family member, friend, community volunteer, or hospice volunteer.

Whether you write for yourself or enable the pro­cess for a patient, remember that words carry tremendous power. They can ignite wars or bestow peace—so choose yours carefully, and advise patients to do the same. It’s not what you say but what you do that others notice. Authentic persons whose words are consistent with the life they’ve lived write the best ethical wills. Years ago, when I wrote an ethical will on my manual Royal typewriter, I realized I’d never so openly expressed my love and blessings for each of my children and grandchildren. Knowing they might remember my words long after my death left me feeling comforted and satisfied.

Selected references

Baines BK. Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: DaCapo Press; 2006.

Pausch R, Zaslow J. The Last Lecture. New York: Hyperion; 2008.

Audrey Riker Vizzard is a former adjunct professor of psychology at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles. She and her daughter Susan Riker Dolan are coauthors of The End of Life Advisor: Personal, Legal, and Medical Considerations for a Peaceful, Dignified Death. To learn more about ethical wills, visit www.ethicalwill.com.

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