What Is An Ethical Will?

Steven Zeller |

Many individuals and families are looking for ways to pass on wishes and instructions to loved ones. Preparing a written statement or video recording can be very helpful in passing on this information.

A very effective method of passing onto loved ones and later generations our hopes, memories and values is an ethical will. Many affluent families are becoming aware of the concept of passing on wishes and instructions to loved ones in the form of a written document or a video recording that answers many of the key questions about who you are and what your hopes are of the wealth conveyed will bring to the heirs.

A few years ago, a movie titled "The Ultimate Gift," was based on this concept, where James Garner was the character who had passed away, communicated his instructions and requirements on a video tape to the youngest family heir. It was a very effective tool in the movie and helped make for a very moving story.

Memories gathered throughout our lifetimes contain deep meaning and are very relevant to us. Unless shared with loved ones and people we are fond us, the things that we have learned and value dearly will be lost to future generations.

Many times, it would be to our wish that we shared these things with our loved ones well into future generations. The wonderful times we shared with our family members and our friends, the lessons we learned and the things and values that we so dearly hold, we would like to pass onto future generations.

Creating an ethical will is a useful tool to pass on stories, traditions, lessons and wishes. In biblical times, this tradition was typically done at the bedside of a dying relative. Loved ones would gather around to hear the final words of the dying relative.

Ethical wills today are a wonderful gift to give to loved ones. They contain a written account of cherished memories, lessons, and family values to pass onto future generations.

Frequently, family members have wonderful memories and lessons to pass onto future generations, but then find it to be it too late to do so because our lives have come to pass or our health has deteriorated and we are no longer able to make the effort to record these lessons and memories.

Creating an ethical will is not a legal task but rather a document written from the heart. Writing this document can be challenging as considering one’s own mortality can be difficult.

Writing an ethical will can be an emotional challenge because it acknowledges not only one's mortality but also one's past. An ethical will is a document that consists of heart felt words and involves passing on more than material things and money.

Begin your ethical will by addressing the people you are writing to and why. Explain your vision for the future and your desire for how life should be approached.

The ethical will should be carefully crafted but it doesn't need to have any specific formula it must follow. For it to hold up over time, it is recommended that you write it on a designed and protected document to secure the writings, make it more meaningful, and storable for generations to come.

Creating your Ethical Will

Following are some suggestions on the steps needed to write your ethical will and some items to include in your document. You may want to come back to the document over several days to really create a meaningful product.

The actual writing of the ethical will is an emotional process involving deep introspection. You do not have to complete it in a single sitting. In fact, it is usually recommended that this is something that you should work on over the course of several days. Take time to carefully think through and write it. It is a very intimate document that will last for several generations.

Consider these steps and topics in assembling your ethical will. The process may take some time; don’t rush through it.

Step 1: Find a quiet and restful place to begin your writing. It is important that at you be free of interruptions and dedicate quality time to begin writing your thoughts.

Step 2: Take your time and try not to rush. Start by formulating a rough draft.

Step 3: Record your writings from many different areas of your past. Consider the following:

Remembering important family members

  • What were the important lessons you learned from your grandparents?

  • What important lessons did you gain from your parents and what were some great things about them?

  • What have you learned from your spouse, children and other important people in your life?

  • What were the important lessons you learned from your grandparents?

  • What important lessons did you gain from your parents and what were some great things about them?

  • What have you learned from your spouse, children and other important people in your life?

Lessons and experiences you want to share

  • 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 your thankful for?

  • What holiday is most important to you and why?

  • How did growing up in your hometown affect the person you are today?

  • What are some stories and experiences about your town where you grew up, and how did it mold the type of person that you are today?

  • Describe any life changing events in your lifetime

  • Explain your feelings towards your family

  • 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?

  • What is a crucial lesson you learned in your early life and how has it continued to influence your values and beliefs? Who or what taught you these lessons?

Important ideas, decisions and accomplishments

  • Think about what accomplishment in your past you are most proud of

  • What are the best and worst decisions you have made in your life

  • What does success mean to you

  • Looking into to the future, name something you would like to achieve or have happen during the rest of your life.

  • What was your greatest challenge during your life and what did this experience teach you?

  • What are the most important attributes a person needs to live a rewarding life?

  • What are the most important values that tie your family

Attitudes on money and wealth

  • What do you appreciate the most about having money and why?

  • What are your greatest fears about money and why?

  • What do you want your heirs to accomplish with inherited material wealth?

  • What are the greatest concerns that you have regarding transferring your wealth?

  • What are your fears regarding the distribution of your wealth?

  • What do you want to achieve before you leave this life?

  • What do you really cherish and love about your life?

The earliest parts of the will should address who you are writing it for and why you are writing it to them. A very compelling approach is to express your hopes and desires/wishes for the future with passion and vision.

What is your vision for your family in the future? How would you want them to remember along the way in their lives, things to watch out for, mistakes to avoid, how would you like to see them view and approach life.

It’s always advisable to cover your idea of what are the important values that you think will help your heirs become and continue to be great human beings the family will be proud of. This can include specific family events or memories. Be sure to include your thoughts and words that have defined your own life the most.

Once your ethical will is complete, you will be able to provide your family and loved ones with a very valuable gift that can be passed on to future generations.


Steven Zeller, Advisory Services offered by Zeller Kern Wealth Advisors, a Sacramento Wealth Management firms and a Registered Investment Adviser.


Zeller Kern Wealth Advisors does not provide legal or tax advice. You should consult a legal or tax professional regarding your individual situation