My dream to build an estate planning practice was born early in my law school career. My first trusts and estates class introduced me to a legal world where the most important and sensitive parts of our lives, our mortality, were front and center. I was excited about the prospect of working with families and individuals to help them reflect on their achievements and plan for their futures. In the real world, I found estate work to be more focused on the practical and procedural and less on the personal. For example, my practice revolves around three main areas; (1) planning the distribution of assets, (2) protecting those assets from costly long term care bills, and (3) obtaining access to and administering assets after death. All three are extremely rewarding experiences, and the ability to help families navigate the legal minefields is a privilege. However, in the background, the issue of our mortality and purpose in life still remains untouched by conventional estate planning tools. An implicit question is constantly being posed to both the benefactor and the beneficiaries: “To What End?” What is the intended purpose of the money that the decedent has left behind? How should it be spent? What values should guide the beneficiaries in spending their inheritance? This article is a step towards offering one answer to that question.
To be sure, most of the concerns I encounter are practical. Money is needed to pay off debts, mortgages, student loans, or to secure necessities. I make sure to address those issues, as they are of paramount importance. But beyond that, how should the heirs treat the money that is left over after bills and other necessities are covered? Akin to Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs, there are more refined concerns. Surely, it is of no less importance to pass along our values and morals as it is our money. So how does an estate planning attorney factor in helping clients convey values to their children along with their IRA, life insurance, and real estate to them? Part of the answer may be in helping clients craft an Ethical Will.
Ethical Wills can be found as early as the times of the Bible and have been used by the Jewish community for millennia. They have recently become more commonplace, with President Obama having penned such a letter to his daughters in 2009. Their role is to leave behind the stories, history, struggles, values, and lessons of the writer to future generations. Such a document can be used to summarize the ideals and maxims which comprise a life well lived and serve as a treasured road-map to heirs. An Ethical Will, also known as a Legacy Letter, need not follow any particular structure or form and is not a legal document per se. It therefore allows for greater freedom of expression than a Last Will and Testament. The Ethical Will can be used to offer guidance as to what the inheritance should be used for, thereby giving the author greater satisfaction when making their bequests. Clients are often eager to have the opportunity to express their heartfelt memories of what life has given them and what they have attempted to give back.
It is of no surprise that the greatest beneficiaries of Ethical Wills are the loved ones of the decedent. They are afforded the brief opportunity to imagine their own future and look back on their own lives in hindsight. What will they value when thinking about their life? What will have been their impact on the world, and what should they prioritize today to live a life without regret. What will be their own legacy, their raison d'etre? Such a bequest is not only timeless and priceless, it is also unique in that it can only be given by one person in the world: You.