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How are 'ethical wills' different from legal wills?

One type of will you may have heard of recently is an "ethical will." These wills are also sometimes referred to as "legacy letters." Ethical wills have been around for a long time, but have recently seen a spike in popularity.

Ethical wills are quite different from legal wills. For one, legal wills are (when executed properly) binding and legally-enforceable documents, whereas ethical wills are typically non-legal, non-binding documents. 

Ethical wills also deal with a different subject matter than legal wills. Legal wills generally are focused on specifying where a person's property will go when they die and dealing with other legal issues related to a person's future death (such as specifying who will be the executor of their estate and who will take care of their minor children).

Ethical wills, on the other hand, typically do not deal with legal issues, but rather are focused on ideas, thoughts and beliefs. An ethical will generally is a document (or recording) containing lessons and ideas that a person wants to pass on to their loved ones. Examples of things people sometimes include in ethical wills are: lessons they've learned over the course of their life, their thoughts on important life issues, their personal beliefs, their personal values and their hopes for their kids and future generations.

A person's values, traditions and beliefs are often a big part of the legacy that they want passed on to their loved ones when they pass away. Ethical wills are aimed at helping individuals with the passing on of this part of their personal legacy. Ethical wills can be included in a person's overall estate plan. Estate planning attorneys can help individuals understand how their estate plan can be used, through both the use of non-binding documents (like ethical wills) and traditional legal documents (like legal wills and trusts), for the goal of passing on their values, traditions and beliefs.

Source: Santa Barbara Independent, "What Is an Ethical Will?," Ben Bycel, June 22, 2015

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