The value of an ethical will

Many people understand the value of a legal will, but what about an ethical will? An ethical will holds so much more than a directive for the transfer of your material goods. It is a written document that details the thoughts, emotions and beliefs that mean the most to you – a comprehensive showcase of your values.

In his book "Healthy Aging, a Lifelong Guide to You Physical and Spiritual Well-Being," renowned writer, teacher and recognized expert on holistic health Dr. Andrew Thomas Weil encourages people to write an ethical will as a gift for their family at the end of their life. An ethical will is not a legal document, but rather a spiritual one – a means to share your values, lessons, hopes and dreams, expressions of love, compassion and forgiveness with family and friends. Unlike a legal will, an ethical will is a letter or essay that is often shared while the writer is still alive.

Your stories
You may have many stories you would like to relive with your children and grandchildren, but don't forget to share stories about times before they were even born. Often family histories are lost because no one bothers to write them down, so be sure to include stories about your youth, how you were raised, and anecdotes that help shed light on why you – and your family – are the way you are. Include little known facts and tidbits that you may not have thought much about during the bustle of raising a family. Consider your past and details about you and your family that you believe may be of interest not just to your family now, but in future generations.

Even if your intended audience has heard these stories before, consider that no one may take the time to write them down after you're gone. An ethical will gives you the opportunity to document these stories in your own voice for posterity.

Much of what will be garnered and retained in your stories will be your perspective. Feel free to share your beliefs and values that resulted from your experiences. Present information and flower it with your personal opinions in order to help shape future generations and their belief systems. It is particularly important to share traditions that have long been held throughout your family's history in order to help preserve them for future generations.

An ethical will empowers you to share the lessons you have learned, why they are important to you and why they may be important to others in the future.

Your regrets
Just as important as the things you did are the things you didn't do – but wish you had. As painful as some of these remembrances may be, consider the value of conveying anything that you regret saying or not saying. Because children are so often influenced to raise their children in the same manner in which they were raised, it's important to share your regrets so that they learn from your lifelong lessons – and have time to change their own course based on your regrets.

An ethical will also gives you the opportunity to forgive friends or family who have hurt you in the past – or ask for forgiveness for things you regret doing or saying. If it has been too painful to say you're sorry in the past, this is the ideal vehicle to express that now.

Your philanthropic wishes
If you have left assets to one or more charitable organizations, an ethical will enables you to explain your reasons to family members who may feel slighted that they did not receive these gifts. Part of the reason it's important to share your stories is to convey why and how you developed your philanthropic beliefs and values. This can go a long way to helping your family understand and perhaps even share them throughout their own lifetime – particularly if you have created a charitable foundation you would like your family to continue to support.

Your blessings
Finally, perhaps one of the most important things you can write about in an ethical will is to identify the things for which you are most grateful. As each person progresses through life, it's easy to get caught up in the pursuit of material possessions and status. By sharing with friends and family the things that are most important to you as you assess a lifetime of living, you can help them re-evaluate and perhaps readjust their own priorities to incorporate more personal – and less material – goals and values.