Most of us recognize the importance of establishing a legal will to document and ensure that our material goods are passed on to the persons and/or causes of our choice. But how many of us have written comparable documents to ensure that our values and beliefs, our parting thoughts and wishes, also are documented and passed on to those we love?

The tradition of ethical wills provides guidance for writing such documents. Sometimes called legacy letters, ethical wills provide a way to transmit one’s life lessons, feelings, and final thoughts to future generations. There is no format or right way to write one. It might contain family history and stories; expressions of blessings and love or perhaps forgiveness; articulation of cultural and spiritual values, traditions, and beliefs; validation of pride in children and grandchildren and hopes for their future well-being; expressions of gratitude and requests for ways one would like to be remembered — all the cherished intangibles, the knowledge and wisdom accumulated over a lifetime, to be preserved and shared with those most dear. Your ethical will might be of far greater value to your descendants than your legal will.

How do you write an ethical will? Again, there is no one right way to do it. You might start by thinking of the most important events in your life and experiences or persons of greatest significance. Why did the events or people hold such import? When have you felt most happy, content, worthy? Can you see common elements or patterns in these memories? What are the life lessons that you want to share and underscore to those you love?

The process of writing an ethical will or legacy letter is similar to writing a life review. The act of identifying, documenting, and reflecting on the most important elements of a lifetime helps to put things in perspective and find meaning in one’s existence. Both have the potential to foster and promote personal growth. The ethical will differs from a life review in that it goes beyond reflection and review; its primary purpose is to share the outcome of that review with those who matter.

One of my favorite examples of an ethical will was presented as a lecture, given by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 47. He shared his life lessons with his students in the moving, witty, and profound “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which is available on YouTube:

One need not be at the end of life to write an ethical will. It is just as relevant to review and evaluate one’s life at times of major transitions and share those reflections with those closely impacted by that transition. An excellent example of such a legacy letter was written by Barack Obama, “A Letter to My Daughters,” penned at the start of his presidency, January 18, 2009, available online:

CENTER ON AGING — University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
2430 Campus Road, Gartley Hall, 201B, Honolulu HI 96822
808-956-6124 |