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Before taking a trip to California shortly after September 11, Kim Payfrock, 42, wrote letters to her two sons and two stepsons, ages 11 to 17. The letters expressed her love for them as well as her joys and regrets in life. "I was nervous about flying and wanted them to open the letters if anything happened to me," says Payfrock, who is an activity coordinator at an assisted living community in Minneapolis. "This was a way to leave them my thoughts, to give them a part of my self."
Payfrock didn't know it at the time, but she had written each of her children an ethical will. Whereas legal wills bequeath material wealth, ethical wills dispense emotional and spiritual wealth. "It's a way to pass on your values, share lessons learned, express love, and address any regrets," says Barry Baines, the medical director of a hospice in Minneapolis and author of Ethical Will: Putting Your Values on Paper (Perseus Publishing, $13). Preparing such a document is not easy, since it requires earnest self-examination. But writers and recipients of ethical wills say the result is an invaluable legacy.
Ethical wills go back to Biblical times. Today, there's renewed interest in leaving heirs a testament of values, due in part to September 11. Although ethical wills vary widely in content, people who write them usually relate what they value most in life (table). They often express love for their survivors and tell them not to grieve. Some explain past actions or recount formative events. Many dispense advice. An example is a now-deceased doctor who wrote that he regretted giving up medical research for a more lucrative career as a surgeon. "There's no greater compensation than being happy in your work," he wrote to his children.
There is no single right way to draft an ethical will. "Just make sure it comes from the heart," says Baines, who also has a Web site, ethicalwill.com. And don't malign your heirs. "There's a temptation to try to criticize, cause guilt, or tell people how to behave," says Jack Riemer, a rabbi and co-author of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them (Jewish Lights Publishing, $17.95).
Ethical wills range in length from a short paragraph to a bound volume. No matter how long it is, think about using archival, acid-free paper and fade-resistant ink so the document won't deteriorate over time. For more tips, you can check out a helpful online brochure co-authored by Robert Flashman, a professor at the University of Kentucky at Lexington (www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/pub/1998/wills.html). People who have trouble expressing themselves in writing may opt to record their ethical will on audiotape or videotape, though a transcript is a good idea. You can also get professional help. "A lot of people don't have the time or they may need help figuring out what they want to say," says Marcia Brier, whose company, Family Legacy Services in Needham, Mass., helps clients write ethical wills, starting at $2,500.
Ethical wills are not legally binding, but many attorneys encourage clients to write them as codicils to their regular wills. They help with estate planning, says James Carolan, a trust and estates attorney in Port Huron, Mich., because they clarify "what's important and what they really want to do with their money." The wills also allow attorneys to personalize clients' legal documents by, say, incorporating text that indicates the motivation for setting up a trust.
Most important, says Flashman, the ethical will "is a way to leave something behind that goes way beyond any financial resources you may have." Indeed, Baines reads his father's every year on the anniversary of his death. One of its messages: "No father could be as proud as your father is of you. You have more than exceeded my greatest expectations." For most people, a bequest like that is more precious than gold. By Kate Murphy