I’m proud to belong to my local Rotary Club. So when this month’s Rotary magazine arrived, I was delighted to see an article about ethical wills. An ethical will is a non-binding document that is intended to share important values, lessons, and blessings to loved ones. Ethical wills are sometimes used to ask for forgiveness or to forgive someone else. Unlike a legal will, which allows you to give tangible items like property and money to your heirs, an ethical will provides a way to give some of your wisdom, insight, and experience to your heirs.
“Just my cup of tea,” I thought, and I settled down to read. An ethical will can be a wonderful reminder, a sort of souvenir of your life, a remembrance and a keepsake far beyond anything you could buy in a store. But the more I read, the more I wanted to ask: is an ethical will really the only way to share yourself with the ones you leave behind?
Don’t get me wrong. As an estate planning attorney, I’m all in favor of wills, trusts, and other advance-planning strategies. You need guardians for your children, protections for your heirs, someone to speak for you when your own voice can’t be heard. As a parent, I like the idea that my son will think “What would Mom say?” when he faces difficult situations later in life, even long after I’m gone. I know that an ethical will is just another way to make your voice heard. And still – why wait?
You’re here now. Your family and friends are here now. What better time for you to know each other? My friend “Jane” is currently grieving her sister’s unexpected death at a young age. Looking at her sister’s CDs, her books, and her social calendar, Jane is realizing how little she knew her sister. What a dreadful loss – not just that her sister is gone, but that the chance to know each other is forever gone too.
Do you have moral and ethical values that you want to pass on to your kids? Share them now. Teach your kids who you really are. You’re not just “Mom” or “Dad” – you were a person before you were a parent, and you still are. Let your kids know you, and let yourself really know them, too. Your child isn’t just “Junior” – each child is his or her own person, similar to you in some ways and startlingly different in others.
Do you want to tell your friends and family who you really are, what really matters to you? Don’t wait. Don’t wait for them to ask – they may not know the right questions. And if you want to know them the same way, don’t wait for them to volunteer answers either. In this casual world of ten-second greetings (“Hey, how ya doin’? Gotta go . . .”), they may not realize that you really want to know.
We’re used to celebrating people after they die. From Vincent van Gogh to Stevie Ray Vaughan, from Anne Frank to “Tuesdays with Morrie”, we are used to the idea that sometimes we only truly appreciate what we’ve lost. It’s never too late, and that’s part of why ethical wills really are a good thing. On the other hand, it’s never too soon either.