A Test of Wills

We draw up wills in order to help our families understand how we want our money and assets distributed and divided—but is this the sum total of what we consider our “legacy”?

More and more, the answer to this question is No. We know that our legacy is also a collective family history, a sense of roots, a core set of values and beliefs that steer an entire life’s worth of decisions.  

Which explains the resurgence of the ethical will, a thousands-years-old concept—seen in many cultures, but most known as a Jewish tradition dating back to the 12th century—that is being  adopted anew as a way for a family members to pass on his or her unique heritage and history through a written document, a video piece, or even a PowerPoint.


Photographic essay by Peter Cunningham


It’s not the method of delivery that counts, but the content, says Susan Turnbull, founder of Personal Legacy Advisors. “An ethical will takes a 30,000-foot-view of your life,” said Turnbull in an article on Barron’s, “and tries to capture the essence of what is important to you, and the lasting messages you want to leave.”

Additionally, spending time creating the ethical will has many benefits for its creator, as well as his or her family. One rabbi who has worked with hospice clients on ethical wills, Min Kantrowitz, says “it’s a fascinating process of self-reflection and clarification,” which draws life’s deepest meaning into clear focus for the creator of the will.

Ethical wills are not legal documents, and are not binding in any way—which in turn creates endless possibilities for how the person might wish to reflect and share the story of their life and life’s lessons, to create a very personal document that stands as an emotional bequest.

And also stands as a very personal message of making meaning out of your life—a reward that would benefit each of us, actually, long before we die.