Writing an Ethical Will: How to Get Started

Exercises and tips for creating this document to share with your loved ones.

Writing an ethical will can feel like an overwhelming process. How does one begin to summarize a lifetime of lessons and beliefs? Where should the focus of the message be?

Rabbi Jodie Gordon, a Reform rabbi who leads the Hevreh of the Southern Berkshires and teaches a class there on ethical will writing suggests beginning simply with one’s thoughts and a pen and paper (or computer). She adapted the following exercises from the book What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone by Rabbi Daniel Cohen to help her congregants craft their ethical wills.

In addition to Cohen’s book, Rabbi Gordon also recommends reading Having the Last Say, Bruce Feiler’s “This Life” column: The Family Stories That Bind Us, and Susan Garland’s “Your Money” column: Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back.

Exercise A: Reflect on courageous choices you have made over a lifetime.

Consider the following:

1) What are three core values in your life?

2) Identify three courageous choices you made that were driven by your values in your personal, work and communal life.

3) Recall an experience when your values were challenged and you fought to uphold them.

4) Think about private ways you remain connected to your past.

5) Identify a past and present moral dilemma in your life and chart the impacts of making a courageous decision versus a convenient decision.

Exercise B: Reflections on how you prioritize your life.

Consider the following:

1) What gives my life meaning?

2) If I had my life to live over again, what would I do with it?

3) What ideals, if any, would I be willing to die for?

4) What would bring me more happiness than anything in the world?

Exercise C: Focus on creating memories for your family.

Consider the following:

1) Great companies possess a statement of values or mission. What is yours? Craft a family declaration of values.

2) Family heirlooms: Look around your house. Do you have an object that was passed down to you that reflects the legacy of your family? Write down the story for your children and grandchildren.

3) Craft a family genealogy chart. The process may reveal stories, connections and a sense of generational transcendence.

Exercise D: Explore inspired storytelling.

Consider the following:

1) Describe an out-of-the-ordinary event in your life. What led to it?

2) Describe an experience when initial disappointment was transformed into gratitude. How did your understanding of the event change? Why?

3) Identify three significant events in your life and trace their path to fruition. Were the events by chance or design?

4) Identify three people who have made a difference in your life. How did you meet them? By chance or design?

5) Share an experience in which you saw God’s hand in your life.

More Resources for Creating an Ethical Will:

Step By Step Directions: How to Write an Ethical Will in Six Easy Steps

Ethical Wills: The Gift of a Heart – Robert G. Alexander

Ethical Wills – What They Are And How To Write One – Kari Berit

Ethical Will Resource Kit

Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them – Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer

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