Heirs to Life's Lessons
Ethical wills pass along values, emotions and intangible treasures
By Jeff Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post
February 22, 2009
|"It can be quite surprising, this process of revealing yourself to yourself." John Angus Eifler, above, whose ethical will grew into a personal history. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)|
On the first page, Ron Shuster lightened the mood with a joke about death.
Over the next eight pages, he spoke to each member of his family, sending the messages he wants them to remember after he is gone: abiding love for his wife, pride toward his daughter, respect for his son-in-law, advice on brotherhood for his grandsons.
He bequeathed the document to his daughter, Merideth, in a sealed envelope.
"I'm not going to leave her a $5 million trust fund," says Shuster, a 60-year-old retired schoolteacher in Centennial. "But I am going to leave her a challenge to think about what things she can do to make her father proud."
It's called an ethical will — or sometimes by other names, like a testament or "legacy letter." The creators use them to describe forces that shaped their lives, to underscore love or admit regret, to pass along life lessons, anecdotes and other treasures immune to a flailing economy and market conditions.
"An ethical will is the voice of the heart," says Barry Baines, a Minneapolis-based hospice physician and a leading expert on the form. "With some you'd better have Kleenex."
Authors can store them away to be read after their death. Or share them in the moment.
While most ethical wills carry no legal force, people have used their keyboards, or even video cameras, to transfer a wealth of experience and values from one generation to the next.
Baines, who has written extensively about ethical wills and whose website, ethicalwill.com, remains a popular resource, began exploring the process a decade ago in his hospice work. Though popularity of his website has spiked, he hesitates to call ethical wills a trend.
But experts in areas from elder law to estate planning to wealth management see it slowly gaining traction.
Count John Angus Eifler, 83, among those who have created a portfolio of life's invaluable intangibles.
He lost his wife six years ago to cancer after nearly a half-century of marriage. While attending a Boulder support group for people who had lost their spouse, he learned about ethical wills.
Eifler immediately sat down at his computer and began writing. He included poems he'd written, and when he found some his wife had composed, he included those too. Favorite recipes found a spot, as did photos and accounts of his trip to South Dakota.
At 76 pages and counting, Eifler's ethical will assumed elements of a personal history as he hammered out anecdotes to be passed on to his three children — and anyone else who cares to read it.
But he also got philosophical.
"It can be quite surprising, this process of revealing yourself to yourself," he says. "Sometimes the inner functions of your mind come out, and you think, 'Did I really want this, or do this, or feel this way?' When you write, you'll bring some things out of your unconscious."
"A good thing to have"
Some write ethical wills early in adulthood, moved by events like the birth of a child or a marriage to put values down on paper, sometimes in the form of a family mission statement or motto.
When people sit down to plan their estate or write their legal will, the motivators are already at hand.
Ever since he picked up the concept from Baines' book and decided that ethical wills were "a good thing to have in the toolbox," attorney Thomas McMillen broaches the subject with just about every estate-planning client in his Golden practice.
"It just interested me so much to think about encouraging my clients to consider not only who gets the grandfather clock, but who grandfather was during his life," he says.
He usually directs clients to outside resources for help writing ethical wills. Books, websites and personal historians offer help for far less than most lawyers' hourly rates.
At his prompting, John Crisfield of Boulder sat down at his computer and tapped out several pages to be read by his wife and children after his death.
"The first thing I realized was important to me is truth," says Crisfield, 58. "I thought through all that, and then entered into this ethical will some of my religious underpinnings."
He wrote about generosity, relationships, how he loves his wife and kids — a load of weighty, sometimes philosophical and emotional topics.
"When I wrote mine," adds McMillen, 52, "I sat there and wept, in an empty room by myself. I wrote it probably six years ago and revised it once since then. Themes remain the same, but details can change."
John Warnick, a partner at Denver law firm Holme, Roberts and Owen, was introduced to the ethical-will concept five years ago. Since then, he's become a proponent of stating values in estate-planning documents for both personal and practical reasons.
For instance, he says, a grandchild wishes to use trust money to travel, knowing that his grandfather often talked of how seeing the world gave him a valuable real-life education and inspiration to amass his fortune.
Operating under legal boilerplate, a trust officer might reject that request because it's not an educational expense at an accredited university. But an ethical will, carefully integrated, could clarify Grandpa's intent.
"That is what's sometimes missing in the pure transmission of property and wealth," Warnick says. "We fail to connect the recipient with the enduring values of the person who possessed these objects."
Warnick acknowledges that many lawyers still fear that the potentially squishy language of values and vision can run afoul of legal exactitude and invite lawsuits. Still, he sees some moving in this direction.
"It's the most satisfying part of my job," he says of his values-based work. "Most law firms' signs say, 'Attorneys and counselors at law.' This is, in my view, at the heart of the counseling function."
For those with fewer material assets to pass along, ethical wills can offer a different kind of satisfaction.
As a psychologist, spiritual director and personal historian, Peggy Thompson of Centennial has employed ethical wills in all three facets of her career. She favors a condensed form that forces an individual to distill experiences and "look at things in a concentrated way."
Most recently, she's volunteered to help hospice patients create them. She finished her own on her 60th birthday. And even though she held it to about five pages, she calls the experience one of the most fulfilling of her life.
"It gave me a sense of connection to the people I wrote it to, knowing that someday the people who brought me to some of this wisdom will read it," she says. "It was an experience of wholeness."
Those who shy away from the written word can still find avenues to pass along their values. Robin Herron, a retired professor at Colorado State University, visited his mother in his native Ireland a decade ago and, suspecting it might be his last visit before she died, shot video that captured "her humor, her nuances of language, her general disposition as a human being."
He not only counts it among his most valued possessions, but he also set about helping others produce video accounts setting forth their life stories, their wisdom, their hopes for future generations.
"I'm committed to the video," he says, "but the ethical will is the substance, it's not the form of the presentation itself. Video gives life to the names on a genealogy chart or names on an autobiography."
Ethical wills take many forms, and various services also offer tools such as acid-free paper, expert printing and binding, and any number of other trappings.
But stripped to the basics, they address something very elemental, Baines says.
"Humans have this transcendence," he explains. "We know that we're not around forever, so we want to see our lives as part of a bigger picture beyond our own lifetimes."
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739 or email@example.com
"It's your move. Consider carefully." Examples of ethical wills
John Haeck, a Lakewood accountant, led a class in writing ethical wills for his church a few years ago. Since then, he has worked on his own. He takes a narrative approach, recounting instructive stories from his youth. Here's one excerpt from a story he wrote about a conversation with his mother advising him about marriage over a game of chess:
Before you fall in love, you should find a gal who complements you well. But when you do, you need to appreciate the treasure that she can be to you. A good woman makes a good man a great man. A good man also makes a good woman a beautiful and wonderful fulfillment of God's handiwork. He helps make one of God's flowers bloom in a way that pleases Him greatly."
"That's a good thought. Thanks. It's your move, I think."
Mom looked back at the chessboard. I looked into space, which was a cloudy lake. But I thought I saw the reflection of clouds parting and pictures of trees and rock-like images emerge with the clarity of a vision that has become real.
Mom moved her queen. It continued to protect the king. But as she completed her move, she said, "Check. Now, my son, I think it's your move. Consider carefully."
Kim Mooney, director of community education for HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield counties, has run workshops on ethical wills. Here is an excerpt from hers:
I think the need to learn has always driven me. I have tried to outgrow myself constantly. My spiritual beliefs might be hard for some to understand, but I believe that we are part of something incomprehensibly bigger than ourselves and that we are responsible to strive to understand it enough that we are able to give something back to this life we were blessed with. I have tried to treat each of you as though you have the potential to outgrow any obstacles or challenges you were given along the way, and if I have pushed you a little too hard because of that faith in you, I am sorry. The older I get, the more precious every moment is to me, and I want everyone I care about to live as large as they can."
Want to write one?
RESOURCES ethicalwill.com: This website, run by Minneapolis-based expert Barry Baines, includes answers to questions about putting together ethical wills, including why and how. It also has a brief directory, by state, of people who can provide further help. personalhistorians.org: Although personal histories tend to be more exhaustive than ethical wills, many personal historians also are willing to help write the short form. This site can link you to resources all over the world.
Estate-planning attorney Thomas McMillen sometimes suggests to clients they use a simple acronym from prayer tradition as an outline for an ethical will: ACTS.
A for adoration: Talk about what has brought you the most joy in life or steered you in a particular direction.
C for confession: If you need to get something off your chest, now is the time to do it. Address things you wish you'd done differently, mistakes others might learn from.
T for thanksgiving: Describe circumstances for which you're thankful.
S for supplication: In this context, describe the wishes, dreams and hopes you have for others.