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What is an Ethical Will?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2014
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An ethical will is a document which is designed to pass down values, beliefs, morals, and lessons to someone's children or followers. In a sense, an ethical will is like a last letter from the deceased, providing additional advice and thoughts on life. As a general rule, ethical wills are private, and not intended for public consumption, although a few have been publicized and even made famous.

The tradition of writing ethical wills appears to be ancient; examples can be found in the Bible, and numerous members of the Jewish community placed a high value on ethical wills well through the Middle Ages. While the idea of creating an ethical will may have peaked in medieval days, the tradition endured, and today ethical wills take a variety of forms, and they aren't just for the religious.

Organizations which promote mindful death often encourage their members to write ethical wills. Especially for people in hospice care, writing an ethical will can be an empowering act, ensuring that some memory lives on even after the death of the patient. For young patients, especially young parents, an ethical will can also help the patient to cope with impending death, creating a legacy which will be treasured by friends and family members.

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Ethical wills don't have to written. People can request, for example, that people gather around the death bed, or make time to visit with the soon-to-be deceased to talk. An ethical will can also be recorded on video or in a tape, with a request to play the recording after death. As a general rule, ethical wills are separate from legal wills, as they do not require a lawyer's expertise, although people may choose to give their ethical wills to their lawyers to be read out along with the last will and testament.

An ethical will can be written and revised at any time, and some people find that the creation of an ethical will helps them to think about their own values and hopes for the people around them. Because ethical wills are designed to be read after death, they are typically very frank and honest, and sometimes the contents may be upsetting, although they don't have to be.

In some families, ethical wills may be passed down through the generations, creating an ancestral legacy which knits together the values of the family. These ethical wills can include true stories, parables, and other forms of wisdom for people to ponder after the death of a loved one.

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