Experience, wisdom passed on through ethical wills

| Beth Blair | September 4, 2015 | 0 Comments
Bill Marsella

Bill Marsella

The topic of death isn’t something most people care to think about or discuss, but planning what will happen after the inevitable occurs is necessary for a variety of reasons.

The legal research corporation LexisNexis reports that more than 55 percent of American adults are without a will or estate plan — tools that could help put people’s minds at ease and make the transition easier for loved ones upon a death in the family. What some people might not realize is planning for after death means more than simply assigning or granting property, financial accounts and family heirlooms.

Today, adults are taking it a step further by creating an ethical will, also called a legacy letter. Bill Marsella, director of partner relations at Catholic Community Foundation in St. Paul, has been in professional fundraising for 38 years and first became familiar with the concept of an ethical will about 15 years ago.

“I’ve written my own ethical will to my five children and many grandchildren 10 years ago and began to see the value of using this concept in my work as a professional fundraiser at about the same time,” he said.

Ethical wills aren’t a new trend.

“The concept of an ethical will goes back in biblical times 3,000 years, to the prophet Jacob, who called his 12 sons to his deathbed to ‘leave them his prophecies’. It is simply a vehicle by which you leave your values, your wisdom and your love to future generations in written form,” Marsella explained. “It is not a legal instrument like a formal will and estate plan, but something that can accompany a legal will when given to descendants or loved ones.”

Marsella says the process is simple and need not be rushed; it’s best done from middle age and beyond or when approaching the end of life. He suggests writing down important tidbits like beliefs, opinions and memories. He points out that it’s easier to write a living will and a will of inheritance when you know what principles you value.

Marsella has given presentations on the topic and asks attendees to reflect on the following questions before writing their ethical wills: How is the world better because I’ve lived? How would I like to be remembered? If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, what would I want to say to my loved ones? Once the answers are laid out, it’s time to put pen to paper. He says an ethical will should start with the context, tell the story and end with a blessing.

Not about money

Wealth is a non-issue when it comes to ethical wills. Marsella says anyone can write one, and people don’t need a large bank account. What you need is life experience, wisdom and love to pass on. In addition, it gives Catholics the opportunity to recall how the Church has molded their faith, Marsella says. A legacy letter can also explain the choices made in a legal will. For example, if a donor leaves a gift to their church or school, a legacy letter can explain the impact a priest, teacher or parish had on their life.

“Very often when someone writes their ethical will or a legacy letter for loved ones, they will mention values or virtues they have that were influenced by their Catholic faith or the Catholic institutions they have engaged with during their lives,” Marsella said. “I recommend the writing of ethical wills because not only are they a wonderful gift to pass on to loved ones, but they can also inform your legal will or your estate planning. Of course, the Catholic Community Foundation can play a role in helping you include the Church in your estate planning.”

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Category: Family Finances