Although many people may not have heard of it before (it was news to this author!), the ethical will has been around since ancient times and is an important tool for estate planners, clients, and litigators to be aware of.

Ethical wills began as an oral tradition and as a way to share and pass on a person’s values, life lessons, traditions, morals, ethics, and philosophy.  Ethical wills are a means to pass on words of love and wisdom to future generations and are not designed to air grievances and complaints.

While ethical wills began as an oral tradition, they have also been memorialized in writing for quite some time.  Not surprisingly, people today are using technology to record their ethical wills in new ways.  Modern ethical wills may frequently be recorded in video or other digital format, for example, a slide show that includes photos and audio clips or a Facebook post.

An ethical will is also a mechanism by which testators can provide additional guidance to their loved ones about the intent behind some of their estate planning decisions.  As such, they are akin to letters of wishes and can provide the stories and reasons behind, for example, a particular distribution provision in a trust that is written in impersonal legalese. 

By providing this background and guidance, an ethical will can be used as a tool to help avoid litigation and diffuse tensions when a testator or settlor includes a provision in his or her documents that is subject to interpretation or that may cause conflict, tension, or unhappiness with the beneficiaries.  By understanding the values and reasons behind a testator or settlor’s decisions, a fiduciary may be able to better interpret and administer the estate, and beneficiaries may be more at peace with provisions that would otherwise cause consternation.

For more on modern ethical wills, see this article recently published in the New York Times.

For an example of a modern ethical will, watch Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture on You Tube.