Ethical Will or Statement of Values

An ethical will or statement of values contain concerns that you want your children, grandchildren or other heirs to know, learn from or be aware of. If you prepare such a statement, you should leave it in a place that would be looked at as soon as practical after your death.

Besides written documents, some people video or audio record themselves and their requests and charges.

Two people come to mind when I think of letters explaining personal values and “where I came from” or “how I got here” adventures—Benjamin Franklin and Randy Pausch. We all know who Benjamin Franklin is—just look on the $100 bill, or the back of the $2 bill (he is shown there signing the Declaration of Independence). Franklin wrote his autobiography in a series of letters to his son and then grandson to explain his beginnings and how his values developed throughout his formative years until he was in his 50s—he lived to be 84. He did not cover his public activities that they either knew about or would otherwise find out. The letters were made public after his death by being published as his autobiography by his grandson. The letters were intended for his family to influence them to follow good practices. Randy Pausch, a college professor, wrote The Last Lecture after he found out he was dying and wanted to document his thoughts for his young children. Both books are excellent and highly recommended.

You can do something similar. Buy a notebook and start writing. Spelling and grammar shouldn’t be a concern. Put down your thoughts in any order you want. Once you start writing, the ideas, memories and points you want to make will flow off your pen (or computer keyboard or digital recorder, if you wish). The more the merrier and rambling is permitted and probably preferred since your personality will show through and be reflected to the reader.

Other examples of ethical wills or advice could be found in the Bible. Isaac and Jacob each gave final blessings to their children about their future activities. Moses gives a final exhortation to the Israelites just before he dies, when they are ready to enter the Land of Israel. Jesus words in John (14:15-17); Polonius’ famous speech to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; and the final page of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck where Wang Lung tries to tell his sons the importance of keeping the land, are all excellent illustrations of a parent’s concern for his children’s future.

Following is a brief listing of some of the things you can relate to your descendants.

  • Your best accomplishments
  • What you would have liked your best accomplishment to have been
  • Your regrets
  • Experiences you have learned from that your children wouldn’t have known about
  • What you would have done better that would have made your life better
  • Experiences and/or people that have molded you or had a strong impact on you
  • What you want for your children
  • Things you value
  • Things you believe in
  • Religious feelings
  • How you felt when you first found out you were going to die (or had cancer, or needed heart surgery) or when you woke from an emergency operation or a terrible accident
  • What you would like said in your eulogy
  • Favorite quotes
  • Some books that might express your feelings

An excellent book on the topic is Ethical Wills, 2nd Edition: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, M.D. This book contains a chapter on Living Wills and an appendix with extensive samples of Ethical Wills and Values’ Statements. Another recommended book is Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom.

A recommended novel by a bestselling author that gives examples of final letters and circumstances that caused their writing is One Summer by David Baldacci.

Hank Greenberg, the baseball great left an eloquent love letter to his wife telling her not to grieve because he had lived “a wonderful life” and part of it was his good fortune to have shared 25 years with her. He also said he thought he had done what he was supposed to do with his life. What a nice final letter! (From Hank Greenberg: The hero who didn’t want to be one by Mark Kurlansky.)

There are services that create a record of a person’s life and preserve it on a DVD, CD or bound volume. To get an idea of what can be done go to .


Reprinted from Getting Your Affairs in Order by Edward Mendlowitz, CPA. Available from and

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