Ethical Wills

(also called “Legacy Letters”)

What is an “Ethical Will”?

We are told we “can’t take it with us.” But what should we leave behind?

Adults of any age are encouraged to have a “Last Will and Testament” that directs an executor in the distribution of their property and assets—their homes, their savings, their valuable keepsakes. Such advance planning is important, yet surveys indicate that more than half of all Canadians do not have a will. Even fewer Canadians have what is called an “Ethical Will.”

You may know that the word “ethical” refers to moral principles, to rules and guidelines for conduct that is right or desirable. So what is an “Ethical Will”? Barry Baines, a medical doctor who has written extensively on the subject describes an ethical will as “a letter that talks about the things that have been important to you in your life.” In his book Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, Baines says: “Legal wills bequeath valuables, while ethical wills bequeath values.” That is a helpful starting point. 

Typically written in letter form, an ethical will is a non-legal document; it is not binding, but it can be bonding. It speaks to how we wish to be remembered after our death. 

Why create an “Ethical Will”? Who is it for?

We show our love and care for our spouses, children, relatives and friends by bequeathing our material goods in an orderly fashion. We also can show our love and care by sharing in writing our life experience and our valued wisdom. We can pass on to those who come after us a description of the values and beliefs that have sustained us. We can express our love and gratitude for the richness we have known in our lives. We can tender our apologies for mistakes we have made;  we can ask forgiveness for hurts we have caused. We can offer our blessings and best wishes for those in the next generation. And, as respectfully as we can, we may provide advice and guidance.

Unlike legal documents, whose rhetoric may be very formal and difficult to understand, an “ethical will” or “legacy letter” can use every day language and heart-felt words. When we think of ethical wills, emotionally powerful books may come to mind: 

  • Tuesdays with Morrie, by sports columnist Mitch Albom, which chronicles the end-of-life reflections of Albom’s professor and mentor Morrie Schwartz; 
  • The Last Lecture, by Carnegie Mellon computer professor Randy Pausch, diagnosed in middle age with terminal pancreatic cancer; 
  • “Mother to Son,” a poem by Langston Hughes, in which a hard-working mother attests that “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” and encourages her son to keep “a-climbin’ on”;
  • Desiderata,” a 1920’s poem by Max Ehrmann. “Desiderata,” which in Latin means “things that are desired,” gained great popularity during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when some of us were coming of age. It influenced the lives of such notables as Adlai Stevenson, Leonard Nimoy, and Morgan Freeman.
  • Chapters 14-17 in the Gospel According to St. John, in which Jesus offers his final teaching to his disciples before his crucifixion.

Once you start looking, you will find may examples of “ethical wills.”

How does one create an “Ethical Will”?

Ethical Wills are as unique as the people creating them. Only you know which values you feel are appropriate to commend to others, which experiences you wish to share and the wisdom you have gleaned. The actual writing is not the difficult part in creating an Ethical Will. Rather the challenge comes in determining how we want to be remembered. The guidelines below may help you to make those decisions.

Writing Guidelines:

The Length: Though Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture have become best-sellers, for most of us our reflections on life will not be as long as a book. If your Ethical takes the form of a letter, it might assume the typical length of one of your letters. Once you decide who you are addressing, you likely will know how long a piece they may be willing to read.

The Content: Barry Baines, a medical doctor, asked his ailing father “to write a letter about the things that he valued.” Baines, the author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, knew that most of us wonder: “What will I be remembered for?”  Dr. Baines and his family were asking for a good-bye letter, one in which his father would talk about things that had been important in his life. Each of us might start by making a list of the things that have been important in our life…even if “the most important things are not things.”

If our focus is on relationships, we may wish to talk about our understanding of love and how it has developed and how that love applies to our spouse, our children and grandchildren, our broader family, and our friends. We might choose to expand on four key statements (from The Four Things That Matter Most,a book by Dr. Ira Byock):

  • I love you…
  • I thank you…
  • I forgive you…
  • Please forgive me…

Or we might reflect on a significant experience in our lives,, using one of the following sentence stems:

  • I learned that…
  • I realized that…
  • I discovered that…
  • I was surprised that…
  • I am pleased that…
  • I am disappointed that…

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.

We may wish to consider character traits that are important to a successful or worthy life. The following traits have been observed in dozens of reference-request letters: 

  • self-initiative; 
  • leadership and accepting responsibility; 
  • ability and willingness to learn; 
  • good reasoning and sound judgement; 
  • integrity and consistent trustworthiness; 
  • dependability; 
  • self-understanding; 
  • positive attitude and emotional stability; 
  • ability to co-operate and work well with others; 
  • tolerance of and concern for others; and 
  • effective communication skills.

Based on your life experience, you might wish to commend certain of these traits.

An even more detailed list of character strengths can be found in an appendix of Flourish, a book on happiness and well-being by Martin Seligman, a leader in the positive psychology movement. Developed for use in a survey by the Values-in-Action Institute, Seligman’s list reflects six major categories:

Wisdom and Knowledge

  • Curiosity / Interest in the World
  • Love of Learning
  • Judgment / Critical Thinking / Open-Mindedness
  • Ingenuity / Originality / Practical Intelligence / Street Smarts
  • Social Intelligence / Personal Intelligence / Emotional Intelligence
  • Perspective


  • Valor and Bravery
  • Perseverance / Industry / Diligence
  • Integrity / Genuiness / Honesty

Humanity and Love

  • Kindness / Generosity
  • Loving and Allowing Oneself to be Loved


  • Citizenship / Duty / Teamwork / Loyalty
  • Fairness and Equity
  • Leadership


  • Self-control
  • Prudence / Discretion / Caution
  • Humility and Modesty


  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
  • Gratitude
  • Hope / Optimism / Future-Mindedness
  • Spirituality / Sense of Purpose / Faith / Religiousness
  • Forgiveness and Mercy
  • Humor and Playfulness
  • Zest /Passion / Enthusiasm

As you reflect on how you wish to be remembered, the above lists may be helpful, focusing on relationships, significant experiences, character traits or character strengths. 

Or you may have a completely different idea of how to proceed. If so, that is good. There is nothing standardized about an Ethical Will. The important thing is to do it, to reflect on your values and the wisdom you’ve gleaned from your life experiences, and then to take time to share them with your family and friends and those who may survive. It will be a treasured record and likely remembered long after your gift of property and assets have been forgotten.

Additional Resources: 

You will find many additional resources on the web, by Googling such terms as “Ethical Will,” “Legacy Letter,” or “Legacy Will.” Many of these Internet sites are geared to providing commercial services, a worthwhile investment to those who can afford them, but certainly not essential. You are very capable of creating a high-quality “Ethical Will” without such paid services.

 You also can find detailed guidance in any of the following books:

  • Baines, Barry K., MD.  Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006.
  • Reimer, Jack & Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer. So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006.