I was a lawyer long before I was an author. The ethical code for lawyers is rigid and unforgiving. It governs nearly every aspect of delivering legal services to clients. The ethical code is written by courts, monitored by bar associations, and is used to admit new lawyers, guide working lawyers, disbar unethical lawyers, and vex old ones.
But it never occurred to me that estate lawyers, who write wills and trusts, had some special, elusive, ethical standards different from those that the rest of us live under.
Turns out, there are alternative ethics for writing nonbinding wills. They even have their own website: Celebrations of Life—Ethical Wills & Legacy Letters.
Their mission is:
“…to provide a meaningful Legacy Journey® experience to help individuals and families live their lives with intention and share their values, wisdom and generosity with loved ones and future generations.”
Its premise—helping you live your life with intention—is intriguing. How does one live with intention? Intention means a thing intended. It could be an aim or a plan. It shows up in common parlance, as in, she was full of “good intentions.”
In criminal law, it shows up in prosecutorial discretion; “intention” is just one of the factors that will be considered in charging someone with a crime. It can be found in domestic relations, especially a man’s, with respect to marriage; if his “intentions aren’t honorable, I never want to see him again.”
The second part of the “Ethical Wills” mission—sharing values, wisdom and generosity with loved ones and future generations—is troublesome, at least in a legal context. Value, as in assets, can be passed via a will or a trust, but generosity lies in the wishes of the testator. It is possible to convey assets to future generations, but it must pass muster with the IRS, not the copy editor.
Little did I know. “An ethical will, or legacy letter, is a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community. It is not a legal document. It does not distribute your material wealth. It is a heartfelt expression of what truly matters most in your life.” Whew. I’m glad to know that.
Even more that I did not know. “Ethical wills are not new. References to this tradition are found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible (Genesis Ch. 49, John Ch. 15-18) and in other cultures.” Today, ethical wills are being written by people at turning points and transitions in their lives and when facing challenging life situations. Most importantly, ethical wills are often read by families before the writer passes on. It’s at this point—the sharing point—that ethics enters the picture.
While I can’t cite authority or sources, I’m quite sure these legacy letters must be written ethically. After all, you’re attempting to instruct your family on how to face a challenging life situation, as your own death is imminent. No fudging. No bragging. No piety. No use-by date. No warranties, guarantees, or pomposities. Write from your head, not so much your heart because it has to be practical and provable, not just promising and lovely.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.
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