Rethinking the Ethical Will: Writing A Legacy Letter

Rethinking the Ethical Will: Writing A Legacy Letter

Posted on
December 30, 2020
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What is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter stems from the Jewish tradition of writing an Ethical Will towards the end of one's life. Known to the Jews as the tzava'ot, these end-of-life planning documents outlined things like burial preferences, debts, dying wishes, and instructions for family members to carry out faith traditions and rituals. Aside from the order or business, they were a way for Jewish elder to pass on their life stories and wisdom to their loved ones before dying. Those outside of the Jewish faith have adopted this practice in what has been often called a Legacy Letter. Essentially, these are intentionally crafted parting words. A legacy letter may seek to right wrongs, bless loved ones, impart wisdom, share advice, or reflect on one's legacy. It is often easier for a person who is uncomfortable broaching certain memories or topics to leave those details in a letter for their families to be read after they’ve passed away. 

An Ethical Will or Legacy Letter deals with mortality and values, whereas a legal will deals with assets and valuables. An Ethical Will is traditionally addressed to one's children but a Legacy Letter can be addressed to anyone that a dying person wants to leave it to. It is simply an opportunity for someone to look back on their life and write out what was most important to them, what they learned, what they regret, what their hopes for their loved ones are, what they'd want them to know, etc. . 

Legacy Letter Template

Even traditional Ethical Wills weren't required to follow a specific outline. With Legacy Letters, people can enjoy freedom and flexibility to craft something that feels genuine to them. It can be written, typed, or recorded in your own voice. You could treat it like writing a memoir, a love letter or a simple Q&A sheet. The defining characteristic of a Legacy Letter is that it communicates values, life lessons and experiences that you want to pass onto your loved ones and future generations. A Legacy Letter could include:

  • Significant memories of your past and present
  • The best advice you ever received or advice you want to give
  • What you are most proud of and what you learned from those things
  • What values you hold closest and how you've exemplified those in your life
  • How you grew from the losses or failures you've had in life
  • What you are most grateful for
  • What you hope or wish for
  • What beliefs are most important to you
  • How you want to be remembered 
  • Any disputes you want to resolve, forgiveness you want to ask for

Writing about things that pain you (i.e. secrets, personal failings, etc) can bring about some level of peace and understanding for family members if communicated with care and thoughtfulness. Therefore, double check that you don't ever come across as judgmental, critical, or manipulative in an "I told you so" sort of way.

Write Early, Edit Often

If possible, don't wait until you're knocking at death's door to write your Legacy Letter. Legal wills are continuously edited and revised through one's life and this document can be treated the same. Both legal wills and Ethical Wills bring people peace of mind, knowing they're leaving their loved ones with the words and assets they wish to. Another benefit to working on a Legacy Letter now is that reflecting on one's life tends to have positive effects on the way we live our lives right now.

Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper author Barry K. Baines suggests that individuals should show their Ethical Will to a trusted friend or family member before passing it on. We might have unintentionally written more about one child than the other, came across as too judgemental in one part, or have forgotten to include an important experience. Getting a second pair of eyes on our writing can help us avoid these things and improve the depth and meaning of our legacy letter. Additionally, if you get stuck or are having trouble deciding what to include or how to format your letter, seeking the help of a therapist, spiritual leader, friend or professional writer can be hugely beneficial. A simple Google search will reveal that there are lots of books, workshops and articles on writing Ethical Wills.

Life Story Recording

Writing out one's life story with a platform like Storii can significantly help with the process of writing a Legacy Letter. Leaving your loved one's with a completed life story is another incredibly meaningful gift. With Storii you can include video and photos in addition to written text. As you answer life story questions, you can share your responses with loved ones through text or email.