Many of my clients who are entering the final years of their lives make appointments for “planning,” but do not seem to be the least bit interested in discussing their financial assets, real estate holdings and valuables. When asked to list or discuss these items for the purpose of completing an estate plan on their behalf, they ask, “Why is this information needed to complete my plan?” As a new lawyer a decade or so ago, I was baffled. I often explained to clients that I was unable to create the best estate plan for them without this specific information. After all, the value of the gross estate and the titling of assets are of great importance in tax planning and disposition of assets. As attorneys, we must be diligent in obtaining the necessary financial information required to “do the job right.”
Although attorneys and clients recognize the necessity of formal planning through wills and trusts, we must be open to the notion that a primary goal of some clients may be to do more than simply plan for the disposition of their earthly possessions and amassed wealth. These very clients may be trying to let us know that they are thinking on a very different plane—one that does not include belongings, monetary wealth, or real estate. It may surprise us to realize that all of the deliberations regarding extent and manner of disposition of these “valuables” do not always seem to satisfy one’s soul. The yearning for something a bit more fulfilling may prevail.
As stated by Aaliyah, an American singer/actress, “It’s hard to say what I want my legacy to be when I am gone.” Aha! So this is what my clients have been trying to tell me! They want to determine for themselves, during their lifetime, how they wish to be remembered. As I continue my growth as both a counselor at law and a human being, it becomes clearer to me that many of my clients, particularly those who are advanced in age, have a strong desire to preserve a legacy of their values, beliefs and life lessons for their families and loved ones..
Enter the Ethical Will, a vehicle for communicating “personal values, beliefs, blessings and advice” to family members and loved ones, many of whom are likely members of a younger generation. The Ethical Will provides clients with a way to live on after death in a meaningful way, regardless of their monetary wealth. In addition to accomplishing the clients’ goal of leaving their loved ones with a lasting legacy well beyond that of their earthly possessions, the actual writing of an Ethical Will may have transforming effects on the clients themselves through the expression of the true “meaning” of their lives. It may actually help clients confront and accept death, while feeling a sense of closure. It is essentially a “voice of the heart” and is likely a more intimate gesture of giving than passing along earthly treasures.
Do not be mistaken. Although a Last Will and Testament and a Living Trust are legal documents with testamentary intent under Florida Statutes, Ethical Wills are not. Nonetheless, Ethical Wills may be a valuable tool to offer clients who seem to be searching for a way to leave something deeper and more lasting than the typical legal documents can provide.
We all leave footprints in the sand. The question is, will we choose to “frame” them as a legacy for our families and loved ones or will we instead choose to let them vanish with the passage of time?