Living legacy

Ethical wills make a popular resurgence

A legal will distributes the valuables you’ve collected over the course of your life. But what happens to your values? What becomes of the intangible collections of your life?

A Jewish tradition, ethical wills—also called legacy letters—pass on those values to future generations. Historically, these documents contained blessings, personal and religious beliefs, and burial instructions. Modern ethical wills contain personal values and beliefs too, but also cultural values, messages of love, life lessons, and requests for or offerings of forgiveness.

Over the past decade, ethical wills “have started to have a presence in the estate planning, elder law, and charitable planning professionals community,” says Denise Chan Gans, senior director of UChicago’s Office of Gift Planning.

In 2004, when ethical wills were gaining in popularity, Barry Baines, a hospice and palliative-care physician and author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, spoke about the trend on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. He attributed the rise in interest partly to demographics. The baby boomers had reached middle age, a pivotal stage of reflection. The 9/11 terrorist attacks reinforced life’s unpredictability. And two days before his 2009 presidential inauguration, Barack Obama published a legacy letter to his daughters, further raising ethical wills into the social consciousness.

While traditionally shared after death, legacy letters are increasingly read while the writer is still alive, says Baines, whose company, Celebrations for Life, offers help writing ethical wills. People reaching turning points—engaged couples, expecting or new parents, divorcing partners, empty nesters—decide to share such letters with family and friends.

In practical terms, ethical wills round out end-of-life arrangements along with legal wills and living wills. “Preparing a legal document such as a will or trust focuses primarily on transfer of assets and tax consequences,” says Gans. “There is no room for expressing values.” An ethical will provides the opportunity to explain the motivations behind a legal will or estate bequest.

An ethical will also serves the emotional needs of both writer and recipient by expressing love and wisdom. John Kotre, PhD’70, a narrative psychologist and author of several books on “lives, memories, stories, and legacies,” explains that legacies connect generations. Often creating your own legacy begins with the one that was passed on to you. “It might be interesting to start an ethical will by saying, This was the legacy given to me,” says Kotre.

Drafting an ethical will is as much—if not more—about the writer’s well-being, according to Kotre. The act may help the writer accept her mortality. It gives her a platform to speak candidly with loved ones in ways that might not have been previously comfortable. It offers a second chance to make good on promises. And it’s a life review; the writer takes inventory of her beliefs and can then continue to live, or return to, those values.

Legacies, says Kotre, are living things. “You can’t control your legacy.” An ethical will documents an intangible life for posterity: This is who I am. This is what I’ve learned. This is why I made the choices I made. This is what I wish for you.

Memorialize your story

“A legacy is your gift to those who survive you.”
—Denise Chan Gans, Senior Director, Office of Gift Planning.

Every person leaves a legacy of some kind—whether concrete, such as a trust or endowment fund or heirloom handed down—or not—memories, advice, impressions. Your legacy is an important gift to that which survives you—not just immediate family and friends but also the places, spaces, and communities that outlast you.

A lthough the Office of Gift Planning does not help prepare ethical wills, we are happy to discuss a donor’s philanthropic intentions and provide options for leaving a legacy at the University as part of the ethical will process. The most rewarding part of our jobs is working with generous donors who are thoughtful in their charitable and estate planning. We hear many stories about what has inspired a donor to make a gift or leave a bequest, and how the University changed the course of their lives. An ethical will is a way for donors to memorialize the stories and experiences that we are so privileged to hear.