Using a Will to Focus on Family Values

Will Image, ethical willsWriting an Ethical Will in addition to the conventional, legal one that is the centerpiece of all estate planning can give you a chance to focus on your family’s values and its true north. These wills focus on spiritual legacies in addition to the material ones. Also known as “value” or “mission” statements, Ethical Wills can be very important in crystallizing family values:

  • They can describe religious or moral values you believe are important to share with subsequent generations.
  • They enable you to describe yourself, to personalize and pass on some of the important “life lessons” you have learned.
  • They can serve as a source for recording details of your family history that might otherwise be lost forever.
  • They give you a chance to explain to your heirs why the philanthropic donations you have made have been so important to you.
  • They enable you to share with your children and grandchildren cherished memories you have of them, and to let them know personally how important they have been to you

Ethical Wills give you the chance to be remembered the way you want to be remembered, and they give you the chance to articulate the values that you want to endure in your family as the generations pass

An alternative to a written ethical will is a video legacy. As Iris Wagner of Memoir Productions ( asks, “Do you wish to communicate with future generations about your heritage, your values and beliefs? Would you like to reflect on your life story and tell it ‘from your lips’?

As a lasting legacy, shouldn’t your story be told by you on camera?” The act of preparing an ethical will allows you to preserve your family’s non-financial legacy. As Iris points out, an ethical will benefits both the narrator and the recipient. It benefits the narrator because it is a celebration of life by which the narrator focuses on meaning, perspective and purpose. It is an open communication with important people. An ethical will clarifies family values, convictions, priorities and goals. For the narrator an ethical will can lasso, heal the past and resolve conflicts, leading the narrator to forgiveness and peace. An ethical will also benefits the recipients. It is a guidepost to living through the sharing of wisdom and enduring values. It improves relationships and clarifies relationships. An ethical will sends the family recipients messages of love which can be quite helpful when they are grieving and healing. It is a perpetual legacy of shared and strengthened values, memories and connections.

In addition to understanding your family’s values, it’s important to be aware of any ghosts that may be lurking in the family closet. Every time a new client comes to me with an extremely complicated situation, I sense a ghost. I am not sure whether it is “Caspar the Friendly Ghost” or a scary ghost, lurking in the attic.

I do know that the ghost impacts the way that the family is operating and how its members communicate. After 30 years practicing estate planning law I know that if I do not pay attention to that ghost, the solution I offer will not help solve the problem and may, in fact, make that problem much more significant.

So when that client is sitting in front of me with a tangled story, I listen and carefully observe what is not being said as much as what is being said. I understand that even though the family may be coming to me for a legal solution to its problem, the reality may be that the problem and the solution are not legal, and should be addressed by a different kind of professional. It is, of course, emotionally safer to visit a law office and speak about how to solve a problem legally than it is to deal with it on a more personal level. But that is not what law or lawyers are supposed to do. The legal structure can enable a plan and allow goals to be implemented, but it cannot address the fault lines of emotional family issues.

Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released her new book, “It’s More Than Money, Protect Your Legacy” available at To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,

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