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Ethical Wills

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- We all know of the will; a legal document with which we bequeath money and objects to loved ones and organizations upon our death. But, have you ever heard of an ethical will? It is a letter, usually written by parents to their children, in which parents bequeath advice, life lessons, love and hopes about the life they wish their children to live.

According to Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer in their book, So That Your Values Live On, Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, (JL Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont 1991), "The tradition of bequeathing a spiritual legacy either in the form of a codicil to a conventional will or as a separate document has its roots in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud [Jewish Oral Law]" (p. xiii).

Riemer shares that writing a will can be a difficult, but insightful, powerful experience. He once met a man who said to him: "I tried to write a letter to my family and found that I couldn't because we aren't really a family. We have so little to do with each other. So I had to write three separate letters, one to my wife and one to each of my children. That is a pretty sad thing to realize about yourself and your family, but I guess it is better to learn it now while you can still do something about it than it is to learn later when it is too late" (p. xvii).

Of course ethical wills are illuminating for children as well and thus for the sake of all involved, parents often wish to present the will while they are still alive and kept by the children as a legacy after the parent dies.

So That Your Values Live On contains hundreds of will examples written by famous and ordinary people, spanning hundreds of years, and representing various styles. This makes it a fascinating read and because it offers a precious glimpse into the private heart of a parent's ultimate yearning for his or her child. It's priceless advice too.

Writing your own will can be as detailed or as simple as you want, but it does not have to be overwhelming. An immigrant mother named Mrs. Baygal wrote hers on a piece of paper while sitting in a bank (p. xxv):

My dear children:
I am writing this in the bank. This is what I want from you children: Evalyn, Bernice and Allen to be to one another--good sisters and brother. Daddy and I love the three of you very much, and we did our best raising you and gave you the best education we could afford. Be good to each other. Help one another if "God forbid" in need. This is my wish.

Love all of you,
Your mother

Below are a few starting points suggested by the authors--the mere act of reading them inspires self reflection:

These were the formative events in my life...
This is the world from which I came...
These are some of the important lessons that I have learned in my life...
These are the people who influenced me most...
These are some of the favorite possessions that I want you to have and these are the stories that explain what makes these things so precious to me...
These are the people in our family and these are the causes for which I would like you to feel a sense of responsibility...
These are the mistakes that I regret having made the most in my life that I hope you will not repeat...
This is my definition of true success...
This is how I feel as I look back over my life...
I would like to ask your forgiveness for...and I forgive you for...
I want you to know how much I love you and how grateful I am to you for...

Finally, the ethical will can be organized in the following manner:

Opening: I write this to you, my _________, in order to ___________.
The Family: My parents, siblings, antecedents were/are...
Events that helped shape our family...
Personal History: People who strongly influenced my life...
Event(s) which helped shape my life...
Religious Observances, Insights: The ritual(s) of most meaning to me...
Specific teachings from _________ source(s) that move me most...
Ethical Ideals and Practices: Ideals that found expression in my life...
I would like to suggest to you the following...
Closing: My ardent wishes for you...
May the Almighty...

Riemer and Stampfer caution that the will should not be an attempt to control your child from the grave or to impart any lasting hurt or pain. Rather, it should be, as the authors encourage, "a gift to the future and the not-yet-born children of your children's children will thank you and bless you for it" (p. xxviii).

I have not yet written an ethical will for my six year old daughter, but with the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement less than a month away, a time of deep introspection, repentance, and overall reassessment of one's values in life, I cannot help but think, this is just what I need to do.

Right now.