Wills & Beneficiaries


Guidelines for Christian Estate Planning Part VII:  the Believer and the Ethical Will

Regardless of the material possessions you leave upon your death, the spiritual legacy you leave your family (despite their ages) endures significantly longer. Photos fade and inheritances disappear. An Ethical Will gives your family “the voice of your heart.” This can last for generations. As Tom McMillan, a Denver attorney said, “it’s not only who gets the grandfather clock, but who was grandfather?”

Simply defined, the term Ethical Will refers to a self-prepared “love letter” to your family. Unlike your Last Will and Testament prepared by an attorney to pass on your material possessions (a “Material Will”), you prepare the Ethical Will yourself. It passes on your spiritual values and concerns, and does not need the work of a legal mind or any proper format.

Records of Ethical Wills

Accounts of Ethical Wills date from early biblical history when the patriarchs gave blessings to their children (Genesis 49). Jesus shared with His disciples an Ethical Will in John 15-18, His final instructions while on earth. In 2 Timothy 4:5-8, Paul suspects that his life will soon come to a close and he gives some final encouragements to his spiritual son, Timothy, in case he does not see Timothy again.

Long common among Jewish families, the modern trend for a more expanded use of Ethical Wills seems to have gained popularity following the tragedies of 9/11. It seems most appropriate in Christian families that individuals leave not only statements of material distributions (wills or trusts) but statements of spiritual values as well.

Content of the Ethical Will

In preparing an Ethical Will, first spend some time getting your ideas together. You might try to center your thoughts in the following four areas by considering these questions.

1. Spiritual – Where does my hope for eternity rest? How do I know I have a home in heaven? How would I like to communicate my personal testimony? What life values shall I share with my family?

2. Historical – What challenges have I faced in life? How have I managed them? What do I want my family to know about my heritage or family history?

3. Personal – What hopes and dreams do I have for my children and grandchildren? Have I made mistakes for which I want to ask forgiveness? Do I want to offer forgiveness to anyone? (This is not the time to “beat up” on somebody from the grave, but an honest attempt to settle unresolved issues.) What words of praise do I want to give to each member of my family? What special words of thanks do I want to convey?

4. Instructional – Why have I made certain decisions about my material estate (such as unequal distributions, gifts to charity, and reasons for distributions of personal and household items)? What words of wisdom can I pass on to future generations?

Ethical will.

Formulating the Ethical Will

Don’t concern yourself with the length and style of Ethical Wills. They range from short paragraphs to lengthy treatises. Make yours long enough to convey your heart. Some people tell of life experiences that shaped them, or speak of blessings and mistakes that formed their character. Others share family stories or include instructions and explanations about personal items of emotional significance. Still others simply state their love for their family. Ethical Wills are not legal documents, so do not include in it anything which needs the weight of the law. However, you better be careful while dealing with other sensitive matters i.e. Material Will, estate planning, and irrevocable vs revocable trusts.

Ethical Wills can prove difficult to formulate, possibly the most difficult thing you ever put on paper. But your family will likely see it as one of the most enduring legacy they receive from you. You can type your Ethical Will or produce a handwritten one. Some people prefer an audio or video recording. Use whatever format you feel comfortable with, but make sure it can be preserved and retrieved in these days of rapidly changing technology. And don’t forget to date and sign what you produce.

Plan your Ethical Will as carefully as you plan your Material Will. Then write or record it. This may well be an enduring document, so give it much thought and probably several drafts. View it as your opportunity to convey personal and spiritual values. You can’t cover everything, but try to capture your soul. It is also a good idea (as with a Material Will) to review it regularly.

Many people share Ethical Wills, or portions of them, with family members prior to their death. Though not a requirement, it does offer an opportunity for special family memories. If you do share it prior to your death, make certain you also leave a copy with your Material Will and keep one in another location (particularly if it includes funeral instructions or has sections that might be appropriately read at your funeral).

Other articles in this seven-part series, Guidelines for Christian Estate Planning:

Click here for Part I: The Biblical Basis for Estate Planning.

Click here for Part II: Biblical Guidelines for Estate Distribution (Article part 1).

Click here for Part III: Biblical Guidelines for Estate Distribution (Article part 2).

Click here for Part IV: Biblical Basis for Charitable Giving.

Click here for Part V: Guidelines for Selecting Charities.

Click here for Part VI: The Believer and Secular Charities.


The Holy Bible, Passage Lookup – New International Version – BibleGateway.com