Originally created 03/15/05

Interest grows in ethical wills



CINCINNATI - Judy Neal hopes she instilled some of her values in her son. But just in case, she wrote it down.

"Try to see both sides of a story," she wrote in her ethical will. "Look beyond the surface and the obvious. It took me a while to learn this."

The use of ethical wills - a centuries-old practice of passing along beliefs, values and personal experiences to loved ones - has begun to re-emerge as catastrophic events underline the unpredictability of life and many see society as increasingly materialistic and transient.

The wills are not legally enforceable. But the founder of an elder law firm in Sarasota, Fla., said he suggests them to clients because they add more humanity to estate planning.

"When you focus strictly on transmitting wealth and property, it can make it a very cold and heartless process for everyone," said Ira Wiesner of Advocates in Aging.

Organizations such as the AARP, the American Society on Aging, and the Spiritual Eldering Institute, have included the topic in their magazines and conferences. Spiritual counselors and health care specialists include it in courses, and financial advisers and estate attorneys discuss ethical wills with clients.

"People often feel invincible until they see cataclysmic events like 9/11 or the tsunami and realize that no one knows what will happen tomorrow and they better leave something to tell people who they were," said Karen Russell, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Grief Support Services Inc.

"Even soldiers in Iraq are realizing this and writing their own forms of ethical wills through letters telling their family what to remember about them if they don't make it home."

Dr. Barry Baines, associate medical director of Hospice of the Twin Cities, said the 75 hits or so daily on an ethical will Web site he began in 1999 jumped after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and now average about 800.

Baines, author of "Ethical Wills: Putting your Values on Paper," said many contacting him are baby boomers who realize their parents' generation is disappearing and that they also are aging.

"More and more of them are deciding that they want and need to leave behind more than just money and possessions," the Minneapolis doctor said. He became passionate about ethical wills while working with a hospice patient dying of cancer.

The patient grew concerned he had nothing to leave his family. Baines remembered reading a book that discussed Jewish ethical wills and suggested that the patient do one.

While anyone can jot down their thoughts for family and friends, the formalized ethical wills offer a document more likely to be preserved through the years.

In Neal's case, her parents left no permanent record of their values and beliefs that could be passed on to future generations.

"There are so many things I won't ever know about their thoughts and experiences," said Neal, 58. "I hope that my son has picked up some of my values and beliefs through the years, but I also want his children and their children to know who I was."

The first examples of ethical wills recorded on paper began to appear around the 11th century, and much of the encouragement for writing the documents has come from the Jewish community with its emphasis on remembrance and legacy.

The Rev. Janice Ledford, chaplain at the Llanfair Retirement Community in Cincinnati, said the wills can add a needed dimension.

"When I do funeral services, I often give a story or a twist on a person's life that their kids never saw," she said. "This way they can tell their children what they want them to know."

Tom Weaver, 58, of St. Paul, Minn., persuaded his 94-year-old mother to write one a few years ago.

"I already knew a lot about her values, but the ethical will made it concrete and real. It's a representation of her lifetime that her children and grandchildren can keep always," he said.

Martha Holstein, who teaches religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, cautioned that if people have revelations such as an abortion when they were young, they need to be sure others are ready to hear it.

"Don't write what you don't want people to read," she said.

There also is the danger of using wills to make others feel guilty or to try to script others' lives, Baines said, especially when the document isn't presented until after death.

More people are sharing the wills while they are alive, presenting them on special occasions such as births and marriages.

"All of us as humans have this feeling that our lives should be part of something larger than ourselves," Baines said. "The ethical will lets us show that we were here."

Passing on values, beliefs in ethical wills

LASTING IMPRESSION: A centuries-old practice of passing along beliefs, values and personal experiences to loved ones has begun to re-emerge with Web sites, seminars and books offering instruction on how to write them.

BENEFITS: Ethical will proponents say the documents add humanity to estate planning by going beyond the transfer of money and material possessions. They also allow people to feel as though they are leaving a more permanent mark of their existence.

PITFALLS: Experts say ethical will writers should be careful not to use them to make others feel guilty about past events or as a way to script others' lives.

On the Net:

Baines' site: http://www.ethicalwill.com

National Grief Support Services Inc.: http://www.griefsupportservices.org