Ethical wills have been getting a lot of press lately. In short, whereas legal wills bequeath valuables, ethical wills bequeath values. They are written expressions of personal beliefs, often coupled with words of wisdom for children and grandchildren. Barry Baines, the Minneapolis physician who has popularized the concept, calls them "love letters to your family."
In our opinion, values and beliefs are most clearly communicated when they are presented within the context of story. People want more than a declarative statement that, for example, their father believes political activism is the mark of good citizenship; they want to know why he believes that, what events in his past made him think this way.
For that reason, most of our clients feel that a Word Portrait expresses their beliefs more clearly than a short ethical will. As their recollections are organized into story, various themes emerge that reflect the values by which they live.
"This I Believe," a short segment airing every Monday on Public Radio's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, consists of essays that are very similar to what others call "ethical wills." Listeners are asked to submit "personal statements about the core beliefs that guide your daily life." The feature is based on a 1950s radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow.
But some folks want their values or beliefs restated in a more succinct and direct manner. These people often include an ethical will (or "legacy letter," a term we prefer) as the final chapter in their Word Portrait.
Or, as an alternative, they prepare the value statement in conjunction with their Word Portrait but, rather than binding it into the book, enclose it in a special folder or envelope for distribution to close family members.
Either way, when value statements are intertwined with stories of the events that nurtured them, readers will do more than understand them. They will remember them.