The author of Happier Endings believes that creating an ethical will is an important part of facing and diminishing the fear of death. She includes an appendix with prompts designed to inspire readers to at least begin this potentially intimidating document, and then to work on it a little bit at a time. An ethical will differs from the traditional assets-focused will in that it communicates lessons and values rather than specific financial instructions. Formats and contents of ethical wills vary as much as people do; personal letters, miniature life histories, bullet-pointed advice and intangible bequests are all options.
The American Association of Retired Persons' caregiving guide on ethical wills recommends that they be shared with recipients while the will's writer is still alive. According to the reference companion Jewish Religion (Louis Jacobs, 1995), the idea of passing on traditions and values to family before death may have originated in the Old Testament era when male heads of families often verbally communicated religious and practical instructions to their descendants prior to death. Jacob's instructions to his sons, recorded in the Biblical book of Genesis, are often cited as the first example of this tradition. The contemporary written version of an ethical will appears later in history during the Middle Ages.
The book Ethical Wills: A Modern Jewish Treasury by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer is cited by Erica Brown in Happier Endings and is often recommended in other books as both potential inspiration and plain good reading on this subject. Copies of the title for purchase seem scarce, however, so interested readers should check with their local libraries for borrowing possibilities.
The Carolina State University journal, The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, has a concise introduction to the ethical will.
Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce
This article was originally published in May 2013, and has been updated for the
April 2014 paperback release.
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