Keeva on Life and Practice

A Legacy of Values

Posted Oct 29, 2005 5:18 AM CDT
By Steven Keeva

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I recently gave a talk to a group of Florida elder lawyers who had trekked across the country to take in the majestic quiet of Yosemite National Park the better to tune in to their own inner urgings and connect with one another.

I was gratified that they found value in my presentation, but I was especially thrilled about a program put on by one of them, Ira Wiesner of Sarasota. It was about ethical wills.

If you’re not acquainted with them, you’re not alone. Many of the folks in Yosemite who were, of course, well versed in traditional wills, living wills and other relevant legal instruments, were hearing about ethical wills for the first time.

Here’s a description of an ethical will which is not a legal document by Dr. Barry Baines, a Minneapolis physician and author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. “An ethical will reflects the voice of the heart,” Baines says. “It’s a bequeathing of values rather than valuables. They offer a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love and forgiveness with your family, friends and community.”

Put another way, it’s a way of passing down through the generations what really matters most to you.

Try the Personal Approach

Among other things, it seems to me, telling clients why they might want to consider drafting such a document whether or not the lawyer gets significantly involved in the process can transform the lawyer client relationship simply because it goes to the very heart of who the client is in a very deep way.

Drafting an ethical will is a way of acknowledging that one’s legacy is more than the stuff he or she has amassed. “It’s probably the only place in routine estate planning where the client’s sense of meaning and purpose can show up,” Wiesner says. In other words, drafting an ethical will is a profoundly human and humane process, one that offers plenty of room to accommodate the quirks and passions that are part of an examined life.

Part personal history, they are often explications of personal dreams, beliefs and convictions. “When I tell clients about ethical wills and suggest that they might like to write one, it tends to delight and surprise them,” Wiesner says.

Lawyers tell stories of clients who go through the process of drafting an ethical will and find a new reason for living. The exercise makes them realize they still have something to offer namely, new meaning and purpose in their lives. In other cases, ethical wills have figured prominently in bringing estranged siblings back together.

Eden Rose Brown is a Salem, Ore., trust and estates lawyer who offers comprehensive personal estate planning, including her own version of an ethical will that she calls a “family philosophy.”

“You’ll often see a situation where after mom and dad are gone, the fabric of the family comes unraveled. The glue is suddenly gone,” Brown says, adding that it’s not uncommon for fights to ensue. Reading a parent’s family philosophy, she says, can dramatically change the status quo.

“We’ve had kids thinking first and foremost about money,” Brown says. “They had their hands out. Then I will send out the letters the parents have written. It’s mind blowing. Brothers and sisters are suddenly holding hands.”

Such is the power of an ethical will to bring to the fore what really matters to both the testator and the beneficiary.

Wiesner has found himself making a habit of recommending ethical wills at moments that seem appropriate. “For example, a client tells me that he’s flying up to Ohio because he’s just had another grandchild.” Such events, which tend to concentrate the mind, are ideal times to add to an ethical will. “At such times, I might say, ‘Why don’t you take a few minutes and write how special it feels today to have you in the world?” Wiesner says. “Then you can leave it for the child or give it to him yourself.”

Such suggestions, Wiesner says, tend to be deeply appreciated. “For most people, it’s important to remain in the world, to be part of loved ones’ future.”

Ethical wills, which have been in use at least since biblical times, are thought to have been originally used by Jews who, not being allowed to own land, found a way to bequeath what they did have: their family histories, religious traditions, spiritual practices and so on. And by medieval times, versions of ethical wills were also being used by Christians and Muslims.

It is worth mentioning that in spite of an ethical will’s nonlegal nature, it behooves a lawyer to make sure there is no inadvertent conflict with other client documents. “But generally,” Wiesner says, “it does not bring up legal issues.”

Still, he says, it is a great opportunity to let the client know that there’s more to life than the legal issues. Ethical wills help clients engage in a profoundly significant process by putting down what really matters to them and help give them a feeling that they’re doing something eminently worthwhile. Clients, Wiesner says, are not looking merely for scriveners; they want relationships with their lawyers.

For more information on ethical wills, see Baines’ Web site, Ethicalwill.com.

Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.

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