Making an Ethical Will

Making an Ethical Will

A last will and testament allows you to distribute the material wealth you have accumulated in your lifetime. But you most likely have also accumulated a lot of practical, intellectual and spiritual wealth, and it is possible to share that with your family as well.

An ethical will is a message to one's children or heirs in which you share your thoughts, advice and wisdom. It is not legally binding, but it allows you to pass on something that may be worth more than the money and property you leave.

People have been writing ethical wills for thousands of years, but only recently have begun writing them again.

Items Included

Some of the things people have put in their ethical wills are:

  • explanations of why they left their property as they did;
  • lessons they learned during their life;
  • beliefs they have found to be true in life;
  • advice they wish to leave their children or grandchildren;
  • requests that people grieve, but enjoy life;
  • acknowledgement of love for family members;
  • forgiveness to those who hurt them;
  • requests for forgiveness from those they hurt;
  • special stories or anecdotes from their life; and
  • family history that should be passed on.


An ethical will should not be used to get even with people, to try to cause guilt, or say anything too outlandish. If someone is not happy with your legal will (the one giving away property), he or she may use your unusual ethical will to argue that you were not competent to make a will. If a judge agrees with him or her, your legal will could be thrown out.

The ethical will is not only a message to others—it is a framework for gathering your thoughts and contemplating your past and your future. There are many points in a person's life when he or she might consider writing an ethical will. Some of them are:

  • upon becoming engaged or married;
  • upon the birth of a new child;
  • at the death of a parent or grandparent;
  • at retirement; and
  • near the end of life.


An ethical will can be anything from a short, handwritten note to a long video. Some people put together a book and include photographs. Others save it on CD or in the cloud.

When using some sort of technology to make your ethical will, remember that by the time you die, certain formats may have become obsolete. In twenty or thirty years, your family might not be able to read or watch it. If you do not update your ethical will to a new format over the years, you might want to leave a hard copy as well as a digital copy.

  • What is a Will?
    A last will is a document that you create to direct the management and distribution of your property and provide for the care of your minor children after your death. The importance of a last will cannot be overstated. A last will is arguably the most important legal document that the average...
    read more
  • Leaving Property to Heirs in a Will
    A typical last will contains two types of gifts: specific and general. Specific gifts, which leave a particular object or dollar amount to a particular person, are optional, but are generally the first items of property that are distributed from a last will. A specific gift might read: "I leave to...
    read more
  • Last Wills and Probate Court
    Probate is the legal process through which the court decides how your property will be divided. If you have a last will, the court will review that document to determine your wishes and will follow those wishes unless the last will is successfully contested by your heirs. If you do not have a last...
    read more
  • Joint Tenancy
    Property that is owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship does not pass under a will. If a will gives property to one person but it is already in a joint account with another person, the will is usually ignored and the joint owner of the account gets the property. The property in the...
    read more
  • Overruling Your Will
    If all property is in joint ownership or if all property is distributed through a will, things are simple. But when some property passes by each method, a person's plans may not be fulfilled. Example 1: Bill's will leaves all his property to his sister, Mary. Bill dies owning a house jointly with...
    read more
  • Tenancy in Common
    Property that is owned by more than one person but not owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship or in tenancy by the entireties is often owned in a tenancy in common. This means that each person owns part of the property (such as one half or one third), and upon each person's death, the...
    read more