An Ethical Will – Passing Down Your Legacy

In this episode, Lisa Shoalmire and John Ross discuss the ‘ethical will’ – the legacy that you leave behind: the wisdom and lessons learned and the important things discovered in life.

Episode Transcript
John
Welcome to another edition of Aging Insight. I'm your host, elder law attorney John Ross, here with my co-host, also elder law attorney Lisa Shoalmire. And we are practicing elder law attorneys here in the Ark-La-Tex. And what we do in our day to day lives is we try to protect individuals from the devastating costs of long-term care, plan their estates so that their assets pass smoothly and easily. And just generally help them navigate through the process of getting older, and passing away, and passing assets down, and protecting themselves, and all of that sort of stuff. That's what we do for a living. But you know as we deal with folks on a day to day basis, we see so often that many times they've made mistakes along the way and that sometimes those mistakes have now grown into big problems. And often times those mistakes could've been avoided if they would have just had a little bit of knowledge. Well, we started bringing you the Aging Insight TV show, to get you that knowledge. Because we know, if you're armed with the knowledge, you can navigate through this maze we call life, on your own terms.
Lisa
You know and so John, part of that knowledge as a senior adult, you have a lot of knowledge based on your life experience, based on the things you studied on and done in your lifetime. And one of the things we see frequently is that that senior adult wants to make sure that those... That wisdom that's been gained over a lifetime is passed down right along with the dollars, and appliances, and bricks, and dirt that they may have accumulated during their lifetime. But they want to pass on that knowledge and their legacy down to their children, grandchildren, and descendants. So today, we wanna talk about some of the ways to do that.
John
Yeah, and this really came to the forefront for me early on in my practice. And I had a nice guy and I started working with him when his wife had had a stroke and she was going to the nursing home. And I got to know him through the process of trying to help her out and I remember one day he was sitting in the office and he was telling me a story about how he was a door gunner in World War II and he would man that big machine gun and occasionally it would jam, and when it jammed it had this little bitty of charging handle and because it was so cold they wore double layers of gloves and his thick gloves were too big to grab that little handle.
John
And so every time that gun would jam, he would have to reach down and grab a piece of the spent brass and he would stick it on that little knob, and that way he could charge the handle on that machine gun and keep fighting. Well, they were in the middle of a air-to-air combat with the Germans over Europe somewhere and he's shooting and shooting and that gun jams and he reaches down, grabs that brass and when he comes back up, right where he was standing is a hole in the side of that plane where an enemy bullet had gone all the way through and out the other side, right where he was standing. And he's telling me the story, and he's kinda wide-eyed and you can tell he's right back there in his mind.
John
And he starts talking about that, he says "John, you know, this was really a changing point in my life. I was really invincible up until that point." He said, "But at that point, I realized that at any time, and I just got lucky this time. And maybe it was God that looked down on me or maybe it was just luck." He said, "I don't know," he said. "But what I did is I gained an appreciation for life." And he said, "There hasn't been a day that's gone by that I haven't really kind of thought about that situation. And when I think about it and I think about how fragile life is, it gives me an appreciation for all the good things I have in my life."
John
And he said, "So even when I'm struggling with my wife's illness and with my own age and all of this." It was a great story. It's obviously one that I remember because I can relive it. But that's not really what struck me. About a year and a half later, I was visiting with his children. His wife had passed away. And after a year or so after she passed away, he had a heart attack and he also died. And his kids were coming to me to talk about, "Well, you know, John, what do we do? We need to figure out how to transfer title to the house." And all the business kind of things that you would think about that come with that sort of thing. And I said, "Well you know, I always enjoyed visiting with your dad, and I remember this one time he told me this great story and I started telling the story of this machine-gun jamming and what he had told me that this had meant to him and as I'm telling the story, the kids just start crying. These adult children are just crying and I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up something painful." And one of them said "John, I've never heard that story before. My dad told you a story and we've never heard it." And it seems like something that had such a big impact on his life and yet, he had not shared that with his kids and now that story was lost except me, I had it and I thought "What a shame, what a shame that that story had been lost." And luckily in his case, I captured it.
Lisa
One of... Who knows.
John
But one of who knows how many stories and how many life lessons he had to share. And I started thinking, "There's got to be a better way to preserve these life lessons because really aren't those things more valuable than anything else?" Well, I didn't really realize it, but I wasn't the only person out there that was thinking this same thing and in fact, there's been kind of a movement. Well, we're gonna take a little break. When we come back, we'll talk about what that movement is and how you preserve these life lessons.
John
Welcome back to Aging Insight. I'm John Ross, here with Lisa Shoalmire and today we're talking about passing on a legacy that's really more than just your stuff. Sometimes people get caught up with their stuff, and they're so worried about who's gonna get the fishing poles and the Grandfather clock in the living room, that they forget about the real value. The things, at least in my opinion, the thing that has the most value is what you've learned as a member of this planet, of this species, this human race, all of those life lessons, those morals and values that if you can pass those on, to me, that's something that really has value.
Lisa
Well, that's right and before the break John, you were talking about, you're not the first person to think about that in fact what we're talking about here is something that has come to be known as an "ethical will." And that is where a person takes the time to perhaps write out stories or nuggets of wisdom, or something that impacted their life, that they want to make sure and pass to the next generation and this ethical will so to speak. The idea really originated with the Jewish Community and the Hebrews way back in the day and this ethical will was a mode to transmit that wisdom and stories from one generation to the next and so we've kind of taken our little modern twist on it, but frankly, it is something that probably takes a little more thought than just who gets the antiques and the dollars in the bank.
John
Right, now so that you're not confused, we're not talking about a will-will, like in the traditional sense of what most people think about. An ethical will... The idea behind an ethical will is what you're doing is you're passing on wisdom. You're not passing on assets. And so these are two different things. A will that you use to pass on property and things like that, it has to meet some pretty formal requirements. It has to either be in your handwriting and signed by you or if it's not in your handwriting, it has to have witnesses and all kinds of different things. That's not what we're talking about. There's really no set structure for an ethical will. The idea behind it is for you to tell whatever it is that you feel like needs to be told so that those folks that you leave behind can learn this lesson or learn these lessons for you.
John
Now, this can be included with things. You might have it along with your will or your powers of attorney and stuff like that, but they're separate things. So that's the first piece, is that it's something completely different. And we're not talking about an enforceable legal document. That's not really the goal with all of this, is to create something that's binding. That's what regular wills are for. So what you oughta do is you oughta think about things that matter to you and write it down in the form of questions. So for example, you might say, you might ask yourself, "What was a point in my life where I learned the value of hard work?" Or, "What does military service mean to me?" Or if you're a religious person then, "What does church mean to you in your life?" All of those sort of questions, and then answer them for yourself.
Lisa
Well, and it's interesting John, because, over the years I have noticed the publishing industry has often come out with little workbooks and things where a book for my granddaughter. And it's usually a little fun thing about, "When I was your age, movies cost how much to go see," or "The best thing to do on a Saturday afternoon was something." And that was a way for a grandparent to share their history with that grandchild. And so we're kind of talking a little bit about that same type of format, but wouldn't grapple with the big issues in life or the big lessons that were learned. And so these days, certainly writing something to that effect is wonderful, and if you can do it in your own handwriting it's an even better... That becomes really a piece of family history and family legacy. But we've got a whole lot of modern technology now with camera phones and iPads and things and so it can be even better if you can work with someone who can actually interview you and ask you these questions that you can record yourself and that can be preserved for your family for later as well.
John
Right. And there's even when it comes to using technology, there are a number of different programs out there depending on what your background is. For example, Lisa and I participate in something called the Veteran's History Project. And the Veteran's History Project is a national program that's meant to get out there and capture the stories of those veterans. Like the guy I was mentioning when we opened the show. And the idea is, is that somebody like an attorney, who has good interviewing skills can sit down with that veteran in the presence of a court reporter or a videographer and interview them. And not only is that record preserved for the family, but at least in the case of the Veteran's History Project, a copy of that also goes to the National Archives and becomes a part of the American History Museum up there in Washington to be preserved forever. So there are some different technologies out there. Now, again, there's different pieces to this and different ways you might want to think about it. And so I think what we'll do is we'll take our last break, and then we'll come back and we'll talk about some things you want to include, some things maybe you don't want to include, and some other pieces to this puzzle. So stick around.
Lisa
Welcome back to Aging Insight. I'm Lisa Shoalmire and I'm here with John Ross and today we're actually kind of talking about something a little bit different than our usual fare. And we're talking about preparing and leaving behind something called an ethical will. And this ethical will has nothing to do with your property or assets but it has everything to do with the legacy that you are going to leave behind and the wisdom and lessons learned and the important things that you've discovered during your life that you would wanna pass on to your children, grandchildren and beyond. John, the first thing about an ethical will is it seems a bit overwhelming to think about writing down or preserving those life lessons learned over that lifetime.
John
Yeah, so there's a couple of ways that you can go about this. One, if you're the kind of person that maybe when they were a teenager, kept a journal and wrote things down. One thing is you can just periodically over time maybe have a little book that you set next to the bedside table or something and as thoughts come to you, you can jot them down and as you get more and more of those then at some point maybe you can start to organize them as you get a collection of these thoughts.
Lisa
Well, that's not uncommon because we often deal with clients who are very concerned about who's gonna get what knick knacks in the house and certain a figurine means something special to a certain niece, and so they give a lot of thought to those kind of things. And it is a process that's no different than the ethical will that we're talking about here. Don't get overwhelmed and think that you should sit down on a Tuesday afternoon and start to finish, put down your life lessons and wisdom but little bite-size chunks are really a better way to approach it.
John
Right, now there's also plenty of information out there on the internet where they have sample questions and sample ethical wills that you can use as a guide to maybe help organize some of your thoughts. So another option is to reach out there online, but a third option, and this is one that not a lot of people think about, is somebody like an elder law attorney. As I was explaining to a client the other day, Lisa I said, I said, "You know, you're gonna go through the loss of a parent and the loss of a spouse once, twice, in your lifetime." I go through it three times a day, helping those families navigate through this.
John
And there's a lot of things I've learned over that process, just by experience of talking to people and learning about them and learning what their wishes and desires. So you can always seek out the guidance of somebody who's a professional in the business of getting information out of folks. And we can help you. In fact, in our practice we have a list, it's about three pages long of questions that you might consider asking yourself to help guide you through the process of creating that sort of ethical will.
Lisa
One other thing is you're thinking about ethical wills and writing things down, one important thing that I think is a good guideline is to try to keep out the negativity. If, for instance, if you have a child or a grandchild that has just really disappointed you through their choices and actions and maybe they have fallen away from the religious training that you brought them up in, or maybe they just made really poor choices about their actions and had criminal entanglements.
Lisa
An ethical will is not the place to take that one child to task and to express your disappointment or something really negative about that child. Because this ethical will is a piece of family legacy that we want to last past just the next generation and sometimes if you go negative on something, it can really impact the total impact of that ethical will that you're leaving behind. So, think carefully about including those negatives and disappointments in that will, that's not really what we're aiming for.
John
Yeah, this is where you might get somebody else to take a look at it because the way you've presented it may sound different than the way that reader reads it. Because it's one thing to say, "In my heart of hearts I hope you'll attend church every Sunday and find the strength and the faith that I had during my lifetime." That's a very positive message as opposed to, "I can't believe you never go to church anymore." So when you find that positive message use this as a tool. Now, in addition to not being negative in this, again I mentioned that this is not a legal document but it does tie into them. Because for example, you might have personal issues about how you want to die and about the quality of your death and the dignity that you want during the death process.
John
Now, actual decision-making through the death process is done between the person you appointed as the medical power of attorney and a document called your living will, which says whether or not you want life support and that sort of thing. That's not what we're talking about. But it's certainly nothing wrong with including things in the ethical will about, "Dignity was always a big part of my life and so I want that preserved through the death process," or "I never wanted to be a burden on other people and so don't let me be a burden, let me pass smoothly and easily." If that's what it means to you. So those two things can come together and the other one, Lisa, really is, if you can speak from the grave, a lot of times, that can head off that family fight before it ever starts.
Lisa
Yeah, so once again, that ethical will can sometimes even have that impact on your legal estate from the standpoint of while the ethical will is in and of itself, not a legally enforcible document, sometimes the gravity of it may cause your beneficiaries and family members to really think again about the pettiness of disputing over a knickknack at the house. And maybe it'll just bring everybody up to a higher level. [chuckle]
John
And you might have a will that says, "Well, I leave the fishing pole to Timmy and the clock to this other person," but we've certainly seen lots of people fight about those sort of decisions but imagine that separate from that is a letter that says, "I've made this will and it leaves some different stuff to different people, but none of that stuff has the value that y'all as a family have together and so don't let the stuff impede your love for one another and having a joyful Christmas and Thanksgiving long after I'm gone." And that actually, in many cases, can stop that fight before it happens.
Lisa
Yeah. No, it really is amazing what that respect and reminder from that patriarch or that oldest member of the family can do and it does have an impact on the younger members.
John
That's right. So, as with always, we appreciate you watching and if you have additional questions you can always call into our live radio show, Aging Insight Radio, which is every Saturday at noon on 107.1. You can reach us out on the Internet, on Facebook...
Lisa
And you can catch a back episode of our show right here on the KLFI website.
John
That's right, so look for us out there. We'll see you next time.
Lisa
Bye-bye.

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