New Jersey “Ethical Wills”: Passing On More Than Mere Possessions

Throughout the years, when clients have reached a certain age or have experienced a sudden or unexpected medical emergency, they have tended to recognize their own mortality. At such times, they have reached out to me in order to prepare or update their Last Will and Testament. Traditionally the focus was almost exclusively upon determining who would be designated as their beneficiaries and who would be chosen to manage their estate after death. Those who were particularly far sighted also tended to inquire about Powers of Attorney, Living Wills and/or Trusts as well in order to designate trusted family members, friends or advisors to handle their personal or medical affairs in the event of disability.

ethical-willIn recent years, however, more and more clients are focusing not only upon the disposition of finances and material possessions after death, or even upon disability planning, but upon ways and means of passing on morals, ethics, values, support for faith based organizations and charities, or simply telling their life story to future generations. This recent emphasis on establishing and passing on a non-material legacy is not new and goes by many names, but is most commonly referred to as an Ethical Will or a Living Legacy. The concept of establishing an Ethical Will dates back at least to the Middle Ages when it was quite common in various faiths to encourage the transmission of faith- related values and practices from one generation to the next.

In this generation, many of my clients have seen that material wealth can be fleeting, but also that it can actually be destructive in the absence of a well grounded set of personal values and core beliefs. This is true, in part, because inherited; unearned wealth can bring out some of the worst tendencies in both the recipient and those closest to him or her. By imparting morals, values, a sense of personal integrity, social responsibility and/or spiritual commitment, and by encouraging the establishment of lasting relationships with trusted advisors and/or valued organizations, it is hoped that these destructive tendencies can be replaced with healthy ones.
It has also been said that an Ethical Will or a Living Legacy can be used to share important aspects of one’s character with loved ones, or as an instrument to keep alive one’s “life lessons’ life stories, cherished memories and/or experiences. In this manner, loved ones and their progeny can remember truly who you were and what your life meant, not merely what assets or material possessions you acquired during your life. Finally, an Ethical Will or Living Legacy can be used to go hand- in- hand with your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents in order to support churches, institutions, organizations, schools, hospitals or charities of importance to you and to promote asset protection through encouraging healthy conduct/relationships and discouraging destructive or addictive behaviors.

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