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An Ethical Will passes on your beliefs, the lessons you've learned, family history, your hopes and wishes for the people to whom it is addressed and anything else you want the people you care about most to know. It's your chance to record as much of your autobiogarphy as you wish as well as your life philosophy. 

According to a study conducted for the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, non-financial leave-behinds such as ethical wills were 10 times more important to people's potential heirs than the financial aspects of a legacy. (For additional reasons to write an ethical will, click here.)

Since it is not legally binding like a Last Will and Testament, an Ethical Will:

  • Is as unique as the person writing it.
  • Can be in any form, and include anything and everything, you wish.
  • Can just be a letter to a child.
  • Can be handwritten, typed, stored on a computer, spoken into a recorder, recorded on video or be multimedia.
  • Can be humorous or serious.
  • Can be short or long or anywhere in between.
  • Can include ordinary writing, pictures, photos, songs, poems, art or anything you wish.
  • Could be a compilation video, a scrapbook with annotations or a series of letters. 

An Ethical Will doesn't have to be time consuming to create. A few well-stated paragraphs can be just as meaningful as many pages of writing.

If the message you leave is from the heart, even spelling and grammatical mistakes won't matter to the people who read it.

To assist putting together an ethical will, see:

When thinking about where to store your ethical will:

  • Many people give Ethical Wills to their loved ones while alive. They find it opens room for discussion and deep communication. A discussion can also trigger memories or clarifications that you may want to add to the Ethical Will. 
  • If you would prefer, you can leave your Ethical Will to be read later. If so, store it in a safe, fire-proof place that you can get to easily (so you can review it periodically to see if there are additions you want to make). Let the person who will handle your estate or another trusted person know where it is stored and what you want done with it. (Include the location on your My Document Inventory list.)

If the idea of putting together an Ethical Will prompts you to think about going a step further and writing a memoir, you may get the added benefit of regaining a spirit and confidence that may have decreased over the years. Rethinking old failures can help work through long-suppressed traumas. If help is needed in writing a memoir,  there is help available. For tips about writing a memoir, click here.


  • If there are some thoughts you want to pass on now, and others later, you can write two Ethical Wills.
  • While considering an Ethical Will, also consider writing a Family Medical Tree which includes any medical conditions you and any relatives have had. This can be valuable information for your family for generations of your family.
  • An alternative to an Ethical Will is an edited transcript from "Dignity Therapy" sessions.  During meetings with a trained therapist, you will be asked about your life, feelings, memories and hopes for your family. At the end of the sessions, you get an edited transcript. You can find a dignity therapist through the support services department at the medical facility at which you are receiving health care.

Why Write An Ethical Will?

Everyone of us is unique. We have each lived and learned in our particular way. We each have thoughts and experiences worth passing on. Some of the reasons to write an ethical will are:

  • To keep family memories alive.
  • To pass on your values and what you've learned in life.
  • To pass on your hopes and wishes.
  • Because writing an Ethical Will is a time of introspection that brings a focus on the positive experiences of your life, what's been learned, and what has been almost forgotten. For many people, writing an Ethical Will can be a cleansing experience.
  • To explain why you are passing on your assets the way you are.
  • To create a sense of control.
  • An Ethical Will provides a way to live on after death in the hearts and minds of loved ones and friends.
  • It's comforting to the people you leave behind.

Tips For Writing An Ethical Will

It's never too soon to start writing an Ethical Will. If you are seriously considering the idea, it may be helpful to put some time on your calendar when you can be alone and start to focus.

Take time to look inward. Writing an Ethical Will can be emotionally challenging. Thinking over your life and sorting through to what really counts likely means also revisiting failures and upsetting times. The examination could lead to the conclusion that the document should not be written. Whatever you decide is correct.

You can address your Ethical Will to your spouse or children, to a special friend, or "To My Family." You may wish to compose more than one Ethical Will, each addressed to a different person or group of people. Listen to your inner guidance. You will know how to proceed.

If it is easier, instead of writing your Ethical Will in one sitting, write your Ethical Will one topic at a time.

Consider such topics as:

  • What I Would Not Want Left Unsaid If I Died Tomorrow
  • My Definition of True Success
  • The Lessons I've Learned In Life
  • Why I Love You and Will Miss You
  • What I Appreciate Most
  • Mistakes I Have Learned From
  • What I Learned From My Parents or Grandparents
  • What Spirituality Means to Me
  • My Happiest and Funniest Moments.
  • My Wishes For My Children

Consider fleshing out your topics with stories the family may not know, or that would be of interest to pass on. Include people or events that have been important in your life. If you a're writing by hand, think about using a separate page for each topic to help keep your thoughts organized. On a computer, you can do the same thing with different files in a folder.

If you enjoy writing poetry or songs, consider including an original composition in your Ethical Will.

If you are not good with written words or you are no longer able to manage a writing instrument, try dictating your Ethical Will onto a digital recorder and/or use a video recorder.

If your penmanship is poor; think about using a typewriter or word processor.

Keep in mind that what you write cannot be taken back after it is delivered.

  • If you are inclined to include anything that could be hurtful to people, give it a second thought before going ahead. If your Ethical Will won't be delivered until after your death, you won't be around to explain what you meant or make things better.
  • If time permits, set aside a draft for a few days or weeks, then review what you've written. Visualize the Ethical Will being read aloud to the family.

Be careful not to contradict your legal documents such as your Will.  Trust Documentsor Advance Directives

Ethical Wills' author Dr. Barry Baines suggests an exercise that he calls "bridging the generations": Envision yourself meeting one of your own ancestors. What questions would you want to ask this person? Your descendants are likely to want the same questions answered by you.

If you write on paper, make sure it's acid-free so it will last for generations. Retailers sell padded leather albums, with silk lining and acid-free paper in which you can store whatever legacy you wish to leave.

To Learn More

More Information

Trusts Advance Directives Wills

Getting Help Writing An Ethical Will

There are a variety of sources to help you put together an Ethical Will, including the following:


Books: Books on the subject include:

  • Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry Baines, M.D. -- creator of offsite link
  • So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them by Jack Riemer, a rabbi (Jewish Lights Publishing)

Your attorney or financial advisor may be able to provide local resources.


Tips About Writing A Memoir

The following tips are from Denis Ledoux, author of Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories ( offsite link)
  • When thinking about what to include, do not attempt to include every detail of your life. Instead, focus on a small number of stories that highlight a crucial phase or tuning point in your life.
  • When possible, show instead of telling. For instance, instead of "I was cold" try something like: "I was in a thin coat, the termperature was below freezing and the wind was howling."
  • Be honest..
  • Think of writing your memoir like you would any work project. Set time each da to work on it. Pace yourself.
  • A free list of questions which are aimed at helping you recall memories worth including is available at: offsite link.  Registration is required. 

Memoir writing instruction is available:

  • Online through online workshops. For instance:
  • Community colleges and adult education programs offer courses in memoir writing. 

You can also hire a consultant who will interview and write a memoir for you. Search online for such terms as "memoirghostwriter" or "memoircoach". Look for people who fit the following:

  • At least 5 references (and check the references)
  • Writing samples
  • A feeling that you can relate easily to the person and will feel comfortable reviewing your life with him or her.

NOTE: Consider making a video of your story. You can do it yourself on your smart phone. If you prefer, and have the cash, professionals are available to create a video of you telling your story. Shooting generally takes a day or more with a camera crew, gear and lighting, and possibly a makeup artist.  Service providers include:; offsite link, offsite linkand offsite link