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What is an Ethical Will?

Only 46% of Americans have a will, even though every adult should have one. But that isn’t surprising, because most people find it hard to think about their mortality. And, after being diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, it can be even harder.

But it’s incredibly important to make sure that you document your wishes about your health care and your property. Triage Cancer has a number of practical estate planning tools to help you.

When people think of estate planning, they may first think of a will. But there is also something called an ethical will. This blog describes what an ethical will is, how to create an ethical will, and how an ethical will is different that a regular will.

Defining an ethical will

An ethical will is a way for you to document your values, experiences, and life lessons that you can pass on to your family and friends.

An ethical will is very personal – you can decide how to best convey your thoughts.  It can be a written letter, an informal note, a scrapbook, or a diary. It can also be an audio or video recording, song, or take any other form you would like.

You can also incorporate meaningful mementos, like your secret recipes, family photos, and favorite poems.

It can be a meaningful way for you to look back on personal and family history and experiences, and reflect on your values. Many have found that they’ve achieved greater peace of mind after going through this process.

How to create an ethical will

The process is a personal one, and it’s completely up to you. An ethical will may be created at any time that you feel is right and it can be an ongoing experience. You may discover that you want to share different things during moments of hardship or happiness.

As you start the process, it may be helpful to consider your past, present, and future.

Reflecting on the past:

  • What personal and family history do you want to pass on?
  • How have your experiences shaped you?
  • Do you have any regrets you would like to share?
  • Are there people you’d like to forgive?
  • Are there people you’d like to ask for forgiveness from?

Sharing the present:

  • Are there values you would like to share?
  • What are you thankful for?
  • Who would you like to express love and gratitude toward?
  • Who has changed your life by being a part of it and what would you like to say to them?

Looking to the future:

  • What hopes and dreams do you have for future generations?
  • What wisdom and advice would you like to share?
  • What requests do you have for the future?

There are many digital tools and services available to help you capture what you’d like to share. Ethical will worksheets, with questions and prompts, can be found online. Some apps and services can help you create recordings, transcriptions, and even printed books of what you’d like to share.

An ethical will is ready to be shared whenever you feel it is. Some people decide that they want to share their ethical will with their loved ones while they are still alive. Others prefer that it be shared after their death.

How is an ethical will different than a regular will?

A regular will, or last will and testament, is a legal document that provides instructions for what you would like to happen to your property upon your death. A regular will is also the place where parents can name a guardian for minor children as well as provide other directions, such as wishes for a funeral. Each state has different rules about how to create, change, and destroy a valid will. Triage Cancer has an Estate Planning Toolkit that provides useful information about legal wills.

An ethical will is not a legal document. An ethical will is not for distributing your property and assets, but is a place where you can share personal things such as family stories, life lessons, and values, for future generations. An ethical will can be personalized to be in any form you’d like and shared whenever you are ready.

For more information about other estate planning documents, visit our Estate Planning Topics Page.

About Triage Cancer

Triage Cancer is a national, nonprofit providing free education to people diagnosed with cancer, caregivers, and health care professionals on cancer-related legal and practical issues. Through eventsmaterials, and resources, Triage Cancer is dedicated to helping people move beyond diagnosis.

We're glad you find this resource helpful! Please feel free to share it with your communities or to post a link on your organization's website. However, this content may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express permission of Triage Cancer. Please email us at info@TriageCancer.org to request permission. © 2023 Triage Cancer

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