By Kristine Woodworth, Founder, Power of Stories Academy
The first time I heard of what I would later come to know as an ethical will (or legacy letter) was years ago in a news story. A young mother diagnosed with terminal cancer began recording video messages for her children covering every life event and topic she could think of. Birthday wishes for every birthday, advice on dating, parenting, money and work. It was the wisdom of an entire lifetime condensed into short videos that would have to stand in for the presence of a mother in her children’s everyday life. It was a gift of almost unfathomable love. It broke my heart.
As I spent time in the personal history business, I came to realize that the gift that mother created for her children was something that any of us can do, and all of us should. It’s gratifying to see finanical planners and estate lawyers embrace the spiritual side of legacy planning, and to hear more and more about the practice in the mainstream press.
For those of you new to the idea, here are the basics:
What is an ethical will or legacy letter?
An ethical will is a document written to express your spiritual legacy, your values, hopes, life’s lessons, wisdom and love to your family, friends, and community. The practice dates back thousands of years and can be found in nearly every culture. As Susan Turnbull says, “Your estate documents tell your loved ones what you want them to have. Your ethical will tells them what you want them to know.”
Who should write a Legacy Letter?
Everyone! We’re not kidding. We strongly believe that everyone’s story is worth telling, saving and sharing. That means YOU! Even if you think that no one will be interested, we have enough experience in the field to assure you that someday, someone will want to know your story.
Beyond the gift you give the future by writing a Legacy Letter, the process of creating one is therapeutic, even cathartic. Reflection and reminiscence are a natural part of life and have been shown to have valuable mental and even physical benefits for the one who remembers.
When is a good time to write a Legacy Letter?
Anytime is a good time to record your legacy for posterity, but we find that turning points in life usually provide the impetus to reflect and pass along your wisdom. For example, the birth, graduation or marriage of a child or grandchild, the death of a spouse or a serious illness.
In addition, many times ethical wills are written as part of estate planning, to help explain decisions made in legal documents or simply to provide heirs with a richer understanding of the writer’s life.
What are the components of a Legacy Letter?
It varies, and what you decide to include in your letter is of course up to you. But some typical topics include:
- Core values
- Life lessons, wisdom and advice
- Stories of family heirlooms
- Hopes and dreams for the future
- Explanations of estate plans
- Funeral and burial wishes
- Who can help me write my own ethical will/legacy letter?
There are personal history consultants across the country who can help you write your letter. But if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, there are plenty of resources out there to help you.
However you choose to do it, you don’t have to be a “writer” to write a legacy letter. Get started!