“By the time we come to realize that the years ahead are far fewer than the years we have already lived, we confront the discouraging truth that, unless we do something about it, all that hard-won wisdom will disappear with us when we die.”

-Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, from the Foreword of Ethical Wills &  How to Prepare Them

What if we told you that the most important document in your estate plan is not legally binding, does not need to be drafted by an attorney, and has nothing to do with your money? 

Essential as wills, trusts, and other legal tools may be in ending well and creating a relational estate plan, these all pale in comparison with the significance of an ethical will.  

(Related: Not familiar with a relational estate planning philosophy vs. a traditional one? Click here to learn the difference.)

Ethical Wills: An Example

Berl Tomshelski was one of the many Jewish victims who died in the horrors of the Holocaust. We don’t know much about him. We don’t know what he did for a living, who his friends were, or how old he was when he died. But we do know what he wanted to communicate to the world when he realized death was imminent. In Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them, by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Kushner, we read this short excerpt about him:

“These lines, written in chalk on a small board, were found by one of the Jews brought in by the Nazis to clear the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto after the Uprising. The charred board was found next to the bodies of a Jewish couple. 

‘Fellow Jews, when you find us, bury my dear wife and me according to our Jewish faith. I request that you say Kaddish three times – for my little eight-year-old son, for my devoted wife, and for me. We lived, we loved each other, we fought, and believed in the God of Israel.’

-Berl Tomshelski”

In scrawling those sentences, Berl carried out a Jewish custom that had been a tradition for thousands of years before him; he created his ethical will. 

The Purpose of Ethical Wills

Invented by the Jewish people in the early days of Israel’s history, ethical wills were originally passed on orally, and over the years it became customary for them to be written down and kept in families.  They are meant to pass on a person’s ethics – their values, moral code, and the important things they want others to remember. In Berl’s case, he wanted his fellow countrymen to know that he treasured his family, resisted the hardships of life and Nazi Germany and that he believed in their nation’s God. Through a few simple lines, we learn what he valued most in his life. We’re inspired and connected to him, both in his humanity and his tragedy. Though most traditional ethical wills are much more extensive and detailed than Berl’s, he was able to carry out their purpose.

Ethical Wills Impact Your Loved Ones

Creating ethical wills is a custom still highly valued in the Jewish community today, and their hugely beneficial ramifications have begun to be recognized throughout other circles as well.

We’ve seen over and over how relevant and impactful ethical wills are to the families, friends, and communities of people who include them in their estate plans, and believe everyone should take the time to create one.

Think of it this way.

Would you rather pass your money to your children or your work ethic?

Would you rather gift a person with finances or write a letter that mends a strained relationship?

Would you rather give your family your wealth or the wisdom they need to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives?

Would you rather leave a legacy of possessions or a legacy of love and moral convictions?

Most of us would agree that the deeper principles of life and relationships are more important by far. These things have the potential to help your family and circle of influence for years to come, even changing the trajectory of their lives. Your loved ones need your take on the world, your beliefs about the big issues we all face in our human experience, your last words of encouragement, and the guidance you can give because of both your positive and negative life experiences.

Start Creating Your Ethical Will Today

The great thing about ethical wills is that, although they have the potential to be the most powerful tool in your estate plan, they are yours to create, and reflect your individual life and personality. There is no right or wrong way to make an ethical will. Long or short, made up of letters or lists, addressed to your family alone or to a wide circle of people – the possibilities are endless and up to you. What’s important is that you pass on your beliefs in a way that is personal to you and will be significant to the recipients.

We encourage you to begin crafting your ethical will so that the people you care about will be guaranteed to have a record of the most important parts of your life and who you are.

Download our free Ethical Will How-To Guide today.