Facing a life crisis or transition? Consider writing an ethical will.
“Ethical wills are a way to share your values, life lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family and community,” according to www.ethicalwill.com.
The site was launched by Barry Baines, a family physician and hospice program director in Minnesota. Baines first became interested in ethical wills when his father became terminally ill in 1990.
But it was Baines’ “hospice care experience that provided the impetus for developing resources to help people write and preserve their legacy of values at any stage of life,” according to the site.
Baines wrote a book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, and a workbook, The Ethical Will Writing Guide Workbook. He launched the Web site and began conducting ethical will workshops around the country.
The ethical will tradition goes back thousands of years, according to Baines.
“The Hebrew Bible first described ethical wills 3000 years ago,” the site reads. “References to this tradition are also found in the Christian Bible and in other cultures. Initially, ethical wills were transmitted orally. Over time, they evolved into written documents.”
Baines told NPR’s “Morning Edition” in December 2001 that Jacob’s last words to his sons—recorded in Genesis 49—constitute one of the first examples of an ethical will.
“Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come,” Jacob said. “Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father.”
Jacob “blessed them,” according to the Genesis author, “blessing each one of them with a suitable blessing.”
Ethical wills are distinct from legal wills. Legal wills are legal documents that bequeath valuables; ethical wills are not legal documents, but they bequeath values, Baines told Minnesota Public Radio in January 2002.
Some common themes in ethical wills include: personal values and beliefs; spiritual values; hopes and blessings for future generations; and forgiving others and asking for forgiveness, according to ethicalwill.com.
The site offers approaches and resources for writing ethical wills, as well as some fascinating examples of real ethical wills written by folks ranging in age from their twenties to their nineties.
Bettina died when she was 29. She left an ethical will in which she wrote the following to her family and friends:
“During the time of my illness, I have loved more deeply. My heart feels as if it has exploded. I do not carry anger. I feel we are all doing the best we can. Judging others closes the heart and when one is dying, that is a waste of precious sharing. Life is how we stand in relationship to both ourselves and to others. Loving and helping each other are all that is important.”
Ellen, just before major surgery at age 45, wrote this to her son James:
“Volunteerism is a value of mine which I hope you will continue: improving the lakes and rivers or the urban landscape, teaching reading or camping, feeding hungry people—whatever you decide. Your life will be enhanced even more than those you help.”
A married father in his forties wrote in his ethical will, “Act as if all your actions will be part of a story published in the Wall Street Journal.”
“Ethical wills are being written by people at turning points in their lives: facing challenging life situations and at transitional life stages,” the site reads. Engaged couples, expectant parents, empty-nesters, even divorcing couples are all writing ethical wills.
Baines told Minnesota Public Radio that writing an ethical will—actually putting your values down on paper and then sharing that with family and friends while still alive—generally leads one to start living life differently.
“When you share it while you are still alive, it makes you live your life more deliberately,” Baines told the Los Angeles Times. “Even if it is just with your family, you have kind of gone public with what you believe and what you stand for. Then you kind of have to start living that way.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.