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What Is An Ethical Will?

What is an Ethical Will?

An ethical will is not a legal document and does not require the services of an attorney, however, some individuals choose to include one as part of a formal comprehensive estate plan. Ethical wills allow the testator to provide life lessons and hopes for relatives or friends.

Sometimes called a legacy letter or letter of wishes, an ethical will may:
  • Detail the testator’s regrets
  • Express forgiveness
  • Offer suggested life experiences for loved ones
  • List proud moments
  • Provide ethics, morals, or values the testator hopes family will follow
Testators may elect to include a one-page document, a long detailed document, or a series of letters. Testators are not limited to hard-copy paper when it comes to ethical wills. Some individuals elect to record their wishes in an audio file, or to film video messages.
Since ethical wills are not legal documents, no matter how clear a testator is in an ethical will about how they wish property to be distributed, unless appropriate legally-recognized provisions have been made to reflect these wishes, property distribution may not occur as desired. Ethical wills are sentimental supplements to a legal Will, trusts, and comprehensive estate plan.
As part of legacy planning, our estate planning attorneys used actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s letter of wishes as an example for passing along cultural values. Although his sentiments cannot be legally enforced, surviving family members can honor his requests in his memory if they choose.
To impose conditions upon which assets will be transferred to beneficiaries, individuals may elect to create a trust with specific provisions. If the trust creator wishes the beneficiary graduate college before receiving trust assets, or that the beneficiary uses trust assets specifically for the purchase of real property, provisions can be added to a trust to set forth these requirements. Customized trusts are legal vehicles for legally instating the creator’s personal values, whereas an ethical will is merely documentation of them.
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