Ethical Wills: A Way to Pass Along Wisdom and Values to Your Family

Ethical Wills: More Than Just Passing Material Wealth

As estate attorneys, we focus on helping our clients pass along material wealth to their loved ones both while our clients are alive and after death. I like to think we go much deeper than most planners or estate attorneys, but frankly, even when we do, we tend to focus on smart tax strategies and optimized plans for distributing money and material wealth. We are less involved in helping clients communicate personal and family values.

Many of us assume, simply as a function of being parents of grown children, that we have done everything we could to pass on our wisdom and values to our children. We frequently assume they know what we think and what we want for them. I think many of us might benefit from thinking about how we can expressly pass on some of our values and wisdom to our loved ones.

This is not a new topic for me, and some of you may have remembered the speaker I brought in, Susan Turnbull. We also did a radio show. Susan is the leading expert on ethical wills, and I think she offers some lessons that are worthwhile for all of us.

First, the ethical will is not a legal document, and it has really nothing to do with the passing of material wealth from one person to another either during lifetime or at death.This is from Susan: “An ethical will is a personal letter, or it can certainly also be a recording or some kind of a multimedia creation, from you to your heirs with the idea that this letter or recording would live beyond you and be part of the record of your life. It really takes a look at what sort of information and what kinds of themes and reflections, what values, some of the lessons that you’ve learned that you would like to pass on as part of your legacy.”

“An ethical will is a personal letter…or some kind of a multimedia creation, from you to your heirs with the idea that [it] will live beyond you and be part of the record of your life.”


I think we all cherish the memories of our loved ones that have passed. Some of us are fortunate enough to have old letters or even old recordings—to remind us of their voices and ways of expressing their thoughts. I have several documents, written by two people who probably never heard of the term “ethical will”. My great grandmother, Annie Jacobs Davis, who married Barnett Davis, my great grandfather, wrote an autobiography that chronicled the events of her life, but also shared her values. She was known as The Mother of Montefiore Hospital because she was one of the founding members of a committee that helped Montefiore Hospital become a reality in 1908. Hers was also one of the founding families of Congregation B’nai Israel, formerly housed on N. Negley Avenue. Her passion for caring for the underserved found continued expression in the next generation when one of her children, Isaac Davis, my grandfather, an ophthalmologist, did not hesitate to treat patients who could not afford treatment. Clearly, her values were communicated to her son. But, her autobiography passed her values on to multiple succeeding generations. My mother, Barnetta Davis Lange, sent me some personal letters that I will always cherish, and which I look forward to sharing with my daughter, so she can learn from her grandmother too. I believe my values have been shaped by the good examples of my ancestors.

Ethical wills are certainly not new. Rabbi Jack Riemer writes “The first ethical wills are found in the Bible. Jacob gathers his children around his bedside and tries to tell them the way in which they should live after he is gone. And Moses makes a farewell address, chastising, prophesying, and instructing his people before he dies. David prepares Solomon before he goes to his eternal rest.” More recently, Randy Pausch, a young terminally ill CMU professor, created an international sensation with his last lecture found at

Though what you write will not likely achieve that degree of notoriety, it could add a different type of legacy for your family.

If you wanted a quick free resource of how to go about writing an ethical will, you could listen to my radio show or read the transcript of the show with Susan found at

There are other resources on how to write an ethical will recommended in the show. I know my life is enriched because some of my family members, including one I never met, took the time to create a communication that could be cherished for generations.
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The foregoing content from Lange Financial Group, LLC is for informational purposes only, subject to change, and should not be construed as investment or tax advice. Those seeking personalized guidance should seek a qualified professional.

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