Creating an “Ethical Will” As Part of Your Family Legacy Development

Steven Zeller |

Many affluent individuals and families are becoming more and more familiar with the concept of passing on wishes and instructions to loved ones in the form of a written document or a video. Several years ago, a movie titled “The Ultimate Gift,” was based on this concept, where James Garner was the character who had passed away and communicated his instructions and requirements on a video to the youngest family heir. It was a very effective tool in the movie and helped make for a very moving story.

During our lifetimes, we develop traditions and values and have many great experiences and lessons within our memories that we want to pass on to future generations. Those memories, values, and experiences are stored in us and when we pass on, so do our memories to share with our loved ones.

The memories, great experiences, and lessons of our past, the things and people we are so fond of and are within us, carry deep meaning and relevance. Many times, our wish is to share these things with our loved ones well into future generations – the wonderful times with our family members and friends, the things we learned, and lessons and values that we so dearly hold, we would like to pass onto future generations.

An ethical will is a very useful tool to accomplish this objective. Ethical wills are not new. They existed even back during the Old Testament biblical times when it was a tradition to assemble loved ones around the bed of a dying relative. However, during this early period, the ethical will was an oral tradition where the dying family member would tell the loved ones important lessons of life and family stories to carry on in the tradition of future generations.

Today, we utilize ethical wills to pass on these things in a form of cherished gifts to our loved ones. It is a gift in writing that shares great memories, important lessons, blessings, spiritual beliefs, values of the family, wishes or hopes for the future, and proud traditions to be passed on to the next generation.

Often, family members have wonderful memories and lessons to pass on to loved ones and future generations but find it to be too late because their lives have come to pass or their health has failed, and are no longer able to take the time to record these lessons and memories.

I have specific examples in my life where a dear friend came down with a sudden and rare case of liver cancer and was soon too sick to write one. On the other hand, my father put together a collection of old pictures from prior generations with narratives and stories of many of the people and places in the pictures. It is a priceless family artifact. It is not officially an ethical will, but you see the point.

Writing an ethical will can be an emotional challenge because it acknowledges one’s mortality and one’s past. But an ethical will is a document that consists of heart-felt words and involves passing on more than material things and money. Writing an ethical will is not a legal exercise, rather, it is a letter written from the heart, sharing your most valued lessons and cherished thoughts. It is a great opportunity to lock in the meaningful reminiscence of the past specific to a particular family member or to all of the children.

It should be carefully crafted but it doesn’t have any specific formula to adhere to. Furthermore, we suggest that you write one on a designed and protected document to secure the writings and make them more meaningful, and storable for many generations.

Formulating your Ethical Will

Although there aren’t any specific topics to include in an ethical will, we have assembled recommended steps as well as some suggestions on topics to consider writing about within your document.

Suggested Steps:

The actual writing of the ethical will is an emotional deep-thinking process. You do not have to complete it in one sitting. In fact, it is something that I recommend that you revisit over the course of several days. Take time to write it. It is a very meaningful and intimate document that will last for several generations.

  1. Pick a quiet and private place to commit yourself for an hour or more to begin your writing journey; A place that is without interruptions and a place where you can sustain inner peace and relaxation. It may sound hokey, but it is important in order to reflect.
  2. Don’t try to rush it. If you need to put your thoughts and draft aside after a while, that’s fine. Give yourself time to fully realize your thoughts. Begin with a rough draft.
  3. Cover a number of areas from which to record your writings. Here are some general topics to consider:

Important Family Members in your life and what you remember about them

  • What are the important things you learned from your grandparents?
  • The great things about your parents and the important lesson
  • Lessons from your spouse, children, and others

Important people outside of your family

  • The two or three most influential people during your childhood and how were they influential in impacting the person you are and your values?
  • What are the most important relationships in your life and why?

Important lessons and experiences in your life that you want them to know

  • Life’s great experiences and lessons.
  • What are you grateful for?
  • The holidays you cherish the most and why?
  • The important values that were passed onto you by your Grandparents and/or parents?
  • What are some of the things about your heritage that define who you are?
  • How much of a role does your heritage play in your life now?
  • Stories and experiences about your hometown and how did it mold the kind of person that you have become?
  • What is an important lesson you learned in your early life and how does it continue to influence your beliefs and values? Who or what taught you these lessons?
  • Did you have an experience growing up that was life-changing? If so, describe it and explain why it was significant to you.
  • What are the deepest feelings you may have for the family and why?

Important accomplishments, ideas, values, etc.

  • Reflect on the past and describe which of your accomplishments you find most gratifying.
  • What are the things missing in your life?
  • What are the most important decisions you have made in your life and why?
  • What are the best decisions you have made in your life and why?
  • What are the worst decisions you have made in your life and why?
  • Define your definition of success?
  • In looking to the future, name something you would like to accomplish or happen in your lifetime.
  • What do you feel are some of the most important qualities a person needs to live a rewarding life?
  • What do you feel is a real measure of success?
  • What was your greatest challenge during your life and what did this experience teach you?
  • What are the universal principles that hold your family together?
  • Describe your proudest moment and how it has affected your life and values.
  • What are a few of the most important ideas or lessons you would like to pass on to your children, grandchildren, or other loved ones?
  • What was the single most important experience of your life and why was it so important to you?
  • If you could pick three things that your family should remember about you what should those things be and why?

Philosophy on money and wealth

  • What do you appreciate most about money and why?
  • What do you fear most about money and why?
  • What do you want material gifts to be passed to your heirs to accomplish for them and why?
  • What concerns do you have about the distribution of your material wealth as part of your legacy and why?
  • What are the things that concern you the most with transferring your wealth?
  • What do you want to achieve before you leave this life?
  • What do you really cherish and love about your life?

The beginning of the “Will” should address whom you are writing it to and why you are writing it to them. A very compelling approach is to express your hopes and desires/wishes for the future. What is your vision for your family in the future? What values would you want them to remember throughout their lives, things to watch out for, mistakes to avoid, and how you envision their approach to life.

A good idea is to cover the important values that you think will help them become (and continue to be) exceptional human beings. Maybe include specific family events or memories. Include thoughts and words that have defined your own life. Who are some of the great people or life heroes that have influenced you and impacted your life and why did they do so? How did they impact you in molding the person that you are? What efforts in your life really made you grow as a person and why? These are all powerful approaches and I assure you this will become a valuable document within your safety deposit box or safe at home.

You may want to end your ethical will with the most heartfelt statement expressing your love for them and that they are the ones that matter in your life.

When this document is completed, you will have created a very valuable artifact that will be there to pass on to several generations and impact many family members.

Steven E. Zeller, CFP®, AIF®, CExP™ writes about the latest thoughts and topics that impact high-net-worth families, individuals, and business owners. The building and sustainability of family wealth and a business is an exciting journey, and he has a passion to help them along the way to grow and thrive. He is the President and Senior Wealth Advisor at Zeller Kern Wealth Advisors and can be reached at or 916.436.8270.