Legacy Planning Pt. 2 - Ethical Wills

Steve Lear |

The idea behind the series is to introduce legacy planning and explain why we feel it is a valuable component of any estate or financial plan. In the prior article we described the differences between estate planning and legacy planning. In this article we will go more in depth about what an ethical will (a common component of a legacy plan) looks like and includes. And in part three of the series, we will provide you with a few exercises to get you started on your own legacy plan.


There is a saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” While the impetus for this aphorism may have been religious, I always understood it to mean that in each of our final moments, there are ideas, morals, values, ethics, and experiences we want to share with those whom we care for most. It is our desire to create a legacy.  


In my last article I wrote about the ways that a legacy plan can enhance a traditional estate plan. Today I want to focus on one way that many people do this, by creating an ethical will. Your legacy plan may include leaving assets to your family and community, but I also want you to think about using this vehicle to craft a legacy message to your loved ones.


Describing or explaining what an ethical will looks like, however, can be very difficult. It is like trying to understand why there are no “atheist in foxholes,”  without knowing what a foxhole is.


So, before going further, let me share an example of a short, yet extremely powerful legacy message; one that you may have read before.


"Hey Jules, this is Brian. Ah, listen … I'm on an airplane that has been hijacked … if things don’t go well, and they’re not looking good, I want you to know that I absolutely love you. I want you to do good, have good times, same with my parents. I’ll see you when you get here. I want you to know that I totally love you. Bye, babe, hope I will call you."

-Brian Sweeney, passenger, United Airlines Flight 175


As you can tell, Brian Sweeney was a passenger on one of the flights that was hijacked on 9/11. He died when his plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center that Tuesday morning in September 2001.


While his story is tragic, I want to focus on his message. He may not have realized when he left the voicemail for his wife, but Brian was creating an ethical will. Perhaps he did not have a chance to relate everything he wanted, certainly in another setting he may have elaborated. Yet, his message contained all of the important pieces that an ethical will, or legacy plan, usually includes.


Brian described his circumstance, shared a personal message to his audience, gave a charge to those he cared about, shared a bit about his spiritual beliefs, and closed with an aspiration. Every time I read that message, I get something out of it that I did not before.


Hopefully, for the rest of us, we will not have to come up with our own ethical wills under such trying circumstances. However, we can use the fact that we never know what lies ahead to motivate us to start planning today. Creating a legacy plan is not easy, crafting an ethical will is time consuming and often difficult, you have to commit to it, but thankfully we are here to help.


If we have defined a legacy plan as: the process one goes through to capture, preserve, and transmit one’s values, morals, life lessons, and outlook to those he/she cares about most dearly. Then, let us try and expand upon each of these components, using Brian’s message as an example, to really explore what your legacy plan could include.


Describe your circumstances/background


“Hey Jules, it’s Brian. Ah, listen… I’m on an airplane that has been hijacked…”


If an ethical will is about transmitting something to the future, you first need to look to the past and describe where you are coming from, and why you are doing this. For Brian, just as for a soldier in a foxhole, his motivation was acute, the very realistic possibility that he would not live to see another day.


For the rest of us, our motivation and sense of urgency is undoubtedly less, but it is still there. Maybe you have been fortunate to reach your place in life and are simply thankful. Perhaps you recently lost a loved one who was influential in your life and want to capture their spirit while it is still fresh in your mind. Other life events – marriage, births, milestone birthdays – can also be powerful motivators for crafting your legacy.


Sharing a bit about this motivation, and creating a historical narrative can be insightful, and will become a cherished record for your descendants. Illustrating your past builds a context for your ethical will.


Share a personal message


“I want you to know that I absolutely love you.”


If there was one thing I could convince every client to do, it would be to write a note to their family, friends, and community, expressing how much they care for and appreciate them. For so many people, this is the most powerful part of a legacy plan, and the part that will outlast any financial or other gift a person may leave.


It is hard to provide a lot more guidance on this part of an individual’s ethical will, since it is so personal, but think of it as a photograph. What photographs of you and your loved ones do you cherish most? Why?


If a picture is worth 1,000 words, try to use those words to paint a picture for your loved ones.  


For Brian, even having never met him, I imagine a picture of him and his wife on their wedding day. For myself, I would choose a similar family celebration, my wedding, the birth of my children, and try to paint a picture of each.


Include an aspiration for, or charge to your audience


“I want you to do good, have good times, same with my parents.”


This is a message we can all take to heart. The charge to your audience does not need to be more than that, but it can be whatever is important to you. Think of this part of your ethical will as the piece that will enable others to perpetuate your legacy. It is the activity which will evoke your memory. The experience which one may not embark upon, but for your charge to do so.


This can relate directly to your own legacy, or encourage your audience to choose their own path. If giving to the arts has always been a priority to you, then you may include a charge to dedicate time, energy, and resources to the arts.  If you are an entrepreneur, perhaps your plan will inspire your descendants to try working for themselves at some point in their professional careers.


Describe your spiritual self


“I’ll see you when you get here.”


An insight into your spirituality can be a very powerful part of your ethical will. This part of your plan may be the most intimate section, providing a deep look into your own beliefs and feelings about things that transcend each of us. While you may include ways that you access spirituality, you can also share your thoughts about the afterlife.


Whether you think there is a place we all go when we are no longer here, or not, transmitting your thoughts on this topic can create tremendous clarity of purpose. Some of us may think that we are only given one chance to make our world a better place, some may believe that this world is merely a gateway to a better place where we will all be together again. Maybe you have another take on the matter. Including some ideas about it in your ethical will can be comforting and inspirational.


Brian’s spiritual self conveyed his confidence that he would see his loved ones again, even if it was not in this world. A message I hope they took to heart and reflect on often.


Close with a hope or reflection


“Bye, babe, hope I will call you."


When I wrote my own ethical will, I completely underestimated how introspective of a process it would be. I knew I wanted to tell my family I loved them, and I used it as an opportunity to provide auto-biographical details about impactful experiences to this point in my life. What I did not realize was that as much as my document was for my family, a lot of it was really telling me what I thought I needed to do to live a more fulfilling and joyous life. Travel, spend time with my family, do work that I enjoy and find rewarding, are all ideas that I share, but that I also continue to pursue.


For Brian, his hope was that he would have another chance to call his wife, a hope that unfortunately did not materialize. Thankfully for most of us, if we craft a legacy plan today, we will have years, or even decades, to continue to not only share, but fulfill our own hopes and dreams.


When Brian left his voicemail over 15 years ago, I doubt he thought his message would be used to motivate others to do their own planning. But, I hope that reading the final thoughts and wishes of a complete stranger will help you appreciate how powerful a message like this can be for your loved ones. There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but we do not need to wait to find ourselves in that position to start crafting our on legacy.


If you have any questions, or need help getting your legacy or estate plan started, please contact your advisor today.