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An Ethical Will

The You, You leave behind

Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016

Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016


Are you leaving the legacy you want? Will your loved ones and future generations know about you, or will they only know about the material things you left behind? You have much more to leave them than just your money. The majority of Americans (75 percent)1 believe wills are important documents that everyone should have, yet only 58 percent of the population has a will. And of those with children under 18 years old, 67 percent do not have wills.2 Even fewer have an ethical will. US Bank sponsored a Community Foundation of Western Nevada seminar by Susan Turnbull of Personal Legacy Advisors in November 2008 to speak to fund holders and professional advisors on the importance of crafting an Ethical Will—a personal legacy document to pass down through generations. Susan’s presentation helped our guests learn about converting the value of one’s life into future value for generations to come.

Why write an ethical will? If you are among the small portion of the population that has created a will and/or trust, you may wonder: Isn’t that enough? While your will and trust are legally binding documents that govern your tangible assets, neither document expresses your very personal reasons behind what you did and why you did it. That’s where the ethical will comes in. Consider this scenario: you have a class ring that is important to you. You plan to leave that class ring to your nephew, who was three years old at the time you graduated. While your nephew will appreciate getting the ring as a memento, will he be able when the time comes to pass on the history of that ring and why he received it? He will if you compose an ethical will to accompany that ring.

Ethical wills pass on the personal part of you and your decisions and thoughts. While what we think about leaving to the next generation is often our financial and material wealth, our wealth is much, much more than money. Our wealth is also our history—and our intention behind our actions.

“We want the money used to support self-sufficiency rather than dependency; the last thing we want is for the fruits of our labor to deprive our grandchildren of achieving their own.” – Susan Turnbull 3


Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016

A family endowment fund at the Community Foundation can involve your children and grandchildren and will share your values with the future generations. Ethical wills take a variety of forms: they can be written letters, audio or video recordings, individualized or group oriented, item-specific (such as the ring example above), or general philosophy. Choose the form(s) that work best for you and express what you want to be expressed.

Pass your values along with your valuables. The main point is to do one. Don’t strive to make it the great American novel; few of us can write that well. As a matter of fact, the fear of writing is one main reason people don’t write their ethical wills!

Here are some other thought barriers:

“No one will want to read what I have to say.”

“My kids know why I did what I did.”

“It will take too long, or it’s too much work.”

“I can’t write well enough to say what I want to say.”

Can you think of other objections? Yes, you probably can. But don’t let these challenges stop you because this document is important! Consider this: just as failing to leave a legal will puts others in charge of distributing your assets, failing to create an ethical will leaves others in control of your legacy. Will they represent you to future generations better than you could represent yourself?

Need help? Call the Community Foundation at 775-333-5499.

Willa DeLay is almost 90 and feels the time is right to, “leave something behind for my kids.” The main message she wants to get across in her ethical will is the importance of education. “Get your education first before getting married because it’s much harder to get it after you’re married and have kids.” 4

Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016


Becoming a member of Legacy Society at the Community Foundation is your chance to leave a lasting mark on the place you love.

What is an ethical will? Ethical wills are personal documents that pass along the wealth of who you are, not just what you earned. Your ethical will is a way to share your values, what you’ve learned during your life, your hopes and dreams for the future of your loved ones … and even forgiveness. Ethical wills are ancient documents that come from historical traditions. Some ethical wills date all the way to the Hebrew Bible and are found in early writings of ancient cultures. While initially transmitted orally, ethical wills have evolved into written documents. Though not legally binding and definitely not to be compared to legal wills or trusts, today’s ethical wills are written at a variety of stages in one’s life: the birth of a child or grandchild, the marriage of a child, the onset of a serious illness, and at the end of life.

Your ethical will is the voice of your heart, a letter of love to your family. It is the you that you pass along to generations to come. What should go in an ethical will? Experts on ethical wills note common themes run through many of them. Ethical wills may include burial instructions, blessings, and personal and spiritual values. Some common themes in modern ethical wills include:

Important personal values and beliefs

Important spiritual values

Hopes and blessings for future generations

Life’s lessons


Forgiving others and asking for forgiveness

You can create your own list of what to include in your ethical will. Your ethical will can be as long or as short as you like. Remember, you are passing along a bit of who you are—not writing the great American novel!

What should not go in an ethical will? Remember that an ethical will is a legacy document—it is designed to carry our thoughts and ideas forward through generations; therefore, avoid putting anything in an ethical will that would be hurtful to the people who will be reading it. Create something to be treasured.


Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016

A gift from your estate to the Community Fund will make a difference — forever.

Why should I write an ethical will? We each have our personal reasons and motivations for writing an ethical will. Some of those reasons include:

Choosing how we are remembered after we are gone

Leaving more than just our stuff to those we love

Telling the stories that shaped who we are and show where we came from

Ensuring others know what we valued most and what we stood for

Passing along our values to those we love—and those who will come after them

Learning about ourselves in the process of leaving our legacy to others

Providing a sense of completion in our lives

When should I write my ethical will? You can write your ethical will at any time during your life—and you may choose to write several during the course of your life. Significant events often prompt people to write an ethical will. For example:

Becoming engaged to be married: With the divorce rate in our society being around 50 percent, an engaged couple may choose to write an ethical will that helps them understand one another’s values and help build a strong foundation for their marriage.

Expecting a child or upon the birth of a child: New parents or “about to be” parents may choose to write an ethical will to create a foundation of common values as they approach childrearing. This ethical will can also help in resolving any conflicts about how to raise the child.

Ending a marriage or long-term relationship: If children are involved, working together to create an ethical will may help provide security and reassurance to the children who are in the chaos of the ending relationship.

Growing and blending families: As with those mentioned above, ethical wills created as a family grows, or blends can provide guidance for resolving conflicts, sharing values, and increasing communication.

Entering middle age and beyond: Most people who learn about and become interested in writing ethical wills are in this stage of life. Why? Because this is the time, we feel we have the most wisdom to share and when we feel our experiences may be most useful to others. An ethical will written during this time of life may provide that sense of completion and fulfillment of life’s purposes.

Learning of a serious illness or experiencing a personal tragedy: Regardless of the event, illness and tragedy cause us to think seriously about our lives—and may provide the perfect impetus to finally write the ethical will we’ve been planning all along.

Approaching the end of life: While we won’t all have the ability or energy to wait until we know the end is near to write our ethical wills, some may indeed find this the optimum time to write.

Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016


Keep in mind The power of your words. An Estate Gift to your favorite charity can make your charitable dreams come true.

How do I write my ethical will? Many people feel daunted by the task of writing an ethical will. While the task may seem difficult at first, remember: you are not required to write a lengthy document or one that reads like a novel. Instead, think of it as a letter—or even a brief note—to those you love.

You can include: Personal and spiritual values Hopes and experiences Love and forgiveness. Beginning If you need some prompts to get those first thoughts flowing, try these: list some items of importance to you and then jot down why they are important.


Jewelry or furnishings you’ve received or inherited

Art or books you’ve collected

Letters you’ve saved

Photographs /Journals

Finish sentences that start with:


My beliefs and opinions were formed by …

I acted on my values by/when …

I learned most when I experienced …

I am grateful for …

My hopes for the future are …

If I could only leave one thing to you, it would be …

If I knew I had only X time left on earth, I’d …

I regret most that I …

Something I learned from my grandparents/parents/siblings/spouse/children is …

The most important event(s) in my life is (are) …

Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016

Imagine the good you can do. Tell your story through philanthropy. Add an introduction and conclusion. After you have written some or all of your ethical will it will come to more easily. As an example, introduce your ethical will with some words to your readers: “Dear family, please read this letter to ….” Then wind it up with a conclusion that is appropriate and comfortable for you.

Let your ethical will sit for a time—a week or two; maybe even a month. Review what you’ve written and make any changes you want to. Put your completed ethical will in a safe place— or share it with your loved ones immediately. Why wait until after you are gone to say the important things?

Talk with your family. Then, talk with us. Your bequest gift will change the future. Leave your Legacy through a charitable endowment at the Community Foundation. Family philanthropy springs up when a family’s good fortune and financial success meets its ideals and values. In life, it is easier to communicate your charitable goals and motivations. Your successors may be left to ponder what the next course of action might be when left with a charitable foundation or fund and few instructions. To ease feelings of doubt and chart a clear course for your family’s philanthropy draft a legacy statement, which is the philanthropic equivalent of an ethical will. In an age when families are spread all over the world, and in which a second or third generation of family members may have had few opportunities to interact with the founding donor, a written statement of philanthropic values can provide needed guidance during times of decision and helps them to share an understanding of your charitable goals. Keep in mind that the world in which you created your philanthropy is not necessarily the world in which it will always operate. The purpose of writing an ethical will or legacy statement is not to bind your family to the past in a way that is restrictive or cumbersome but rather to add to your collective family history and to enable them to write their own chapters.

Want some help preparing your Ethical Will? Use Susan Turnbull’s book (available at Let Community Foundation of Western Nevada help. Call 775-333-5499 and ask for Tracy Turner.

Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016


This is an excerpt from a letter by U.S. Army Captain Michael MacKinnon to his wife and children. He wrote it in February 2003 before he was deployed to Iraq. He sealed it and left instructions that it should be opened only if he were killed fighting in Iraq. On Oct. 27, 2005, a bomb exploded near his Humvee, taking his life. The “If you are reading this...” letter opened after his death is extremely poignant. To his daughter (pictured here with him in 2003):

“Madison, I’m sorry I broke my promise to you when I said I was coming back. You were the jewel of my life... If you can do anything for me, you can take school seriously and do well. With a good education, you can become anything you want. Stay away from drugs, they will ruin your life. Finally, stay away from bad men. You deserve too much. I don’t think anyone would ever be good enough for you.... Stay beautiful, stay sweet. You will always be daddy’s little girl.”

Leave a community where your grandchildren, for generations to come will want to live. Resources and References 1 2

Read some examples of ethical wills: 3 4 Hoops, Stephanie

Tracy Turner, Chief Philanthropy Officer

50 Washington Street, Suite 300 // Reno NV 89503-5660 phone 775-333-5499 // fax 775-333-5487 //


Community Foundation of Western Nevada – Ethical Wills Handout 2009 updated 2016

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