What is an Ethical Will? (And How to Write One)

by | Jun 1, 2022 | Estate & Legacy Planning, Insights

You’ve done a good job planning and organizing all the legal and administrative parts of your estate plan. Your will is complete, trusts are set up, and you’ve appointed trusted individuals to ensure the process is executed according to your wishes when you pass.

Your estate plan details how your things should be dispersed, preparing your wealth for your family. If you’re still working on this step, see How Do I Reduce Estate Taxes?

What’s missing? You! Your “why” behind all this planning. How do you communicate the values and heart behind your estate plan? How do you prepare your family for your wealth? This is where an ethical will can help.

An ethical will is a kind of “love letter” to your family, a personal message where you share your thoughts, values, memories, life lessons, advice, and hopes for the future.

Where do you start? Your ethical will can be as unique as you are. There is not a formal structure you have to follow. You can type it or handwrite it into a journal. You could create a scrapbook, write a poem, or record a video. It should be a natural, true reflection of you.

4 questions to help write your Ethical Will

Think of the lessons, stories, values, and vision you might share with your family gathered around a dinner table or campfire. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are your favorite things? You might include favorite vacation spots, artists, musicians, songs, and hobbies. These help future generations get to know you. Your kids and grandkids might know some of these details already, but what about three or four generations down the road? Those who still benefit from your wealth will appreciate the chance to get to know where this care and provision came from.
  • What memories shaped you? Are there family stories that you would like future generations to know? Memories from parents or grandparents? Helpful lessons passed down to you? Your family will learn more about you through these memories and perhaps see themselves in them!
  • Which life experiences have been the most impactful? What accomplishments are you most proud of? What challenges did you face and what did you learn from them? What were your greatest joys and biggest surprises? Your loved ones can benefit from learning what you had to overcome to build the legacy you left for them and, perhaps, build the resilience they will need to face their own obstacles.
  • What are your hopes for your family’s future? After sharing so much about you and your experience, this is a shift toward what you want for them. What values do you want to pass along? What experiences do you hope grandchildren and great grandchildren can have? Share your “why” behind funds left for specific use like education. If you’re incorporating charitable giving, cast a vision for the impact you hope they will create with your wealth. This gives them a North Star to follow, especially when going through hard times.

This “letter” should be a blessing. Don’t be afraid to speak from your heart. Be open, honest, and vulnerable. Those you love the most should know you love them! Let them know you believe in them. Include some specific things about what you see in them, what you are proud of, and what you cherish.

Now to make this even better, don’t save it until after your death. Consider sharing it with them now! Pick a special occasion, gather the family, and read it to them. Our article 4 Steps for a Successful Estate Planning Talk with Your Family can help get you started. Your family gets to hear your heart directly from you and you get to experience the joy of seeing your legacy beginning to unfold.

Alterra Advisors - Josh Whelan

Craig Hamilton

Strategic Advisor

About the Author

With over 30 years of experience as a Certified Financial Planner, Craig Hamilton joins Alterra as a sort of paternal figure and has a position of respected “special counsel” to the firm. This role is likely familiar to Craig as one of his four children is also a financial advisor. Mr. Hamilton is also a Certified Public Accountant with a degree in Business from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where he graduated magna cum laude.

Craig was born and raised in the Pacific NW and built a family here that now includes seven grandchildren. In Craig’s words, “coaching, counseling, and mentoring are in my DNA.” This approach also characterized Craig’s financial career for 20-plus years as an Investment Officer for Russell Investment Services and their later incarnation as The Threshold Group. Throughout that time, Craig approached financial planning as “a critical tool to manage financial priorities and achieve a client’s dreams,” a philosophy perfectly aligned with the Alterra approach.

Craig took an early interest in all things financial — purchasing his first security while still in elementary school. Given his history, it’s not surprising multi-generation investing and legacy planning are his special interest. Listening to the stories of his clients and then helping them along the path to their goals brings Craig personal joy. So, it will likely come as no surprise that Craig was also a college tennis coach for over 20 years. To repeat Craig’s catchphrase, “coaching, counseling, and mentoring are assets” that he will invest in Alterra Advisors.

The “Alterra” name was coined by joining the Latin roots “alter”, the origin of the word “altruism” with “terra” meaning earth or land. This name reflects the company philosophy of “clients before profits” and providing firmly grounded advice.

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