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Friday, May 22, 2015

Ethical Wills: A Gift of Wealth Beyond Money

Ethical wills are a way of conveying personal values and history, and provide a legacy for families and future generations.

Ethical wills are a simple yet powerful way to communicate values and intentions. They are typically letters addressed to a specific audience, such as the writer’s child or immediate family. They can be excellent relationship building tools for advisors when used in conjunction with their financial planning services. Because they are not legal documents, any advisors can address this subject with their clients. By incorporating ethical wills into your practice you may find an entirely new level of trust and gratitude from your clients, their families, and their loved ones.

In the securities world, the “Know Your Client” rules dictate that we must know a certain set of financial data before we recommend products and services to someone. Of course most of us go beyond that to know them on a more holistic or personal basis. After all, it’s a relationship business, right? But how deeply do you really know your clients? Maybe you know where they grew up, what their favorite hobbies are, or even their pets’ names. 

But do you know what really motivates them? Do you know what they would like their legacy to be and how they would like to be remembered by their families and friends? Those are conversations that are difficult to broach, and often financial review meetings are not structured to ask such intimate questions. 

Knowing what motivates us—our aspirations, our ideals, our most cherished principles—is at the heart of our legacies and can serve as a powerful tool for all aspects of wealth management. Goals become easier to reach when we understand our internal motivations and values. Accomplishments viewed in the context of WHY we did what we did have greater lasting meaning and value to future generations. Yet most people rarely stop to ponder and uncover those deep intentions. Ethical wills are a way to capture and communicate those values in a personal and powerful way. 

Nothing New
It’s not a new or novel concept. Examples of ethical wills and moral teachings can be found in the Bible and other ancient religious teachings. At its foundation, an ethical will is a letter from the heart to describe what is important from the writer’s perspective to their loved ones. Those important thoughts may be life lessons, lasting values, good deeds to carry on, or wishes for the future.

A personally written ethical will becomes a valuable communication to others either after a life’s passing, during a period of critical illness, or perhaps even more powerfully while we’re alive together. Dr. Barry Baines, a hospice medical director and long time advocate of ethical wills, says, “An ethical will can mean more than any material possession you might bequeath (Baines 2002).” Dr. Andrew Weil promotes drafting an “ethical will as a gift of spiritual health (Weil 2005).”

Get It in Writing
Just as it is not always easy to get your clients to address estate planning or health-related topics, neither is it easy to get them to contemplate their legacy. Even if you approach the subject with them, not every client will write an ethical will. Few people enjoy writing and even fewer will take the time and effort to look deeply within themselves. Getting started often needs a motivation. 

If they are facing a critical or important life event, it can be a great time to discuss the subject. Let them know how important it would be for others to hear their thoughts at this time. While their feelings are heightened and their thinking is focused, writing will be easier to start and have more meaning when finished. Entering hospice care has often been the time when reflection of life is contemplated and can be encouraged to write it down. Drafting an ethical will could be linked with a child’s or grandchild’s birth, when updating a living trust or advance medical directives, at the holidays or after a family reunion, or upon reaching a milestone birthday or anniversary. On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President in 2009, he wrote a powerful ethical letter to his daughters to explain “why I decided to take our family on this journey (Obama 2009).” 

If there is no immediate event or motivation, reading about the impacts that can result from heartfelt conversations can elicit feelings that lead to action. A personal gift of a book such as Helga Hayse’s Money, Love, and Legacy (2010), along with a handwritten note, can be a great prompt to begin the internal and interpersonal conversations that lead to a sincerely written letter.

Four-step Workshop Process
Offering a workshop on writing ethical wills can also be a great way to get more people started. Church groups, senior groups, or creative writing classes at community centers welcome this valuable subject. The workshops can be done in as little as ninety minutes, but two or more sessions to allow proper reflection and organization are most effective. 

1. Step one: Ask each individual to answer the question: “Who am I and what do I believe?” Time should be given to participants to write and reflect on their answers. Encourage them to brainstorm and save editing for later. This is usually a private, internal conversation, and only ask gently if anyone would like to share what they learned about themselves. 

2. Step two: Ask “What do I want to share and with whom?” This will determine the tone and direction of the letter. Sharing this within the group often clarifies the motivation for the individuals writing their ethical wills. 

3. Step three: Ask “When and how do I want to communicate?” or “Do I want to leave a letter for others to read or deliver it myself?” 

4. Step four: Each person should decide how he or she wants to create the project. Ethical wills are most commonly completed in a written letter format, but other approaches include audio recordings, photo projects, or videotaped conversations. 

A workshop can be structured using any or all of three basic approaches to writing an ethical will. As the workshop leader, you can start with a pre-set outline and a list of suggestions for answers. You could begin with structured exercises that ask a series of questions and allow participants to do some free-form writing. Or you could begin the workshop with a blank sheet of paper and allow them to draft their own unique document. Depending on each person’s writing ability and confidence, the methods go from easy to difficult and from formatted to creative. 

There are many sources for examples of ethical wills, outlines of each approach, and powerful questions to engage and prompt your audience (Baines 2002). There is also an “Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters” LinkedIn group of professionals to participate in. You may download a structured exercise questionnaire, “Wealth Beyond Money: Sharing the Richness of Your Life with An Ethical Will” at

An ethical will doesn’t have to be written only once  or for a single audience. It can be revised, rewritten, and re-shared as many times as the writer would like. Regularly asking the three questions above will prompt the writing of many types of ethical wills, for a variety of purposes, and for many different people.

Heartfelt Changes
Wealth management is not just about the money. It’s also about morals, personal values, family history, remembrance, and spirit. Opening up dialogues with your clients will not only lead to better relationships but also greater service opportunities. Dr. Denise Federer, of the Federer Performance Management Group, coaches owners of family owned businesses. She states, “There are clearly identified additional opportunities for retention and growth of assets that are available to financial advisors if they are willing to redefine their clients from single individuals to multi-generational families.” Serving in this way requires intergenerational communication skills and an ethical will is a great foundational tool. The more we can uncover about our client’s essential hidden motivations, the better we will serve them and their families. 

If you knew your client’s deepest motivations, how would it change your relationship with them? How could you better serve them? This can be a game changer. They will look to you to help guide them in their most critical moments. You will be asked to help them make decisions that will affect their family relationships and shape their futures in a much more significant way. Your professional relationship will expand beyond money, products, and services. You will be valued as a trusted advisor and cherished friend. Incorporating ethical will writing into your practice promises impactful changes. Change a client, change a family. Change your practice, change yourself.  • CSA

Paul S. King is a Certified Financial Planner® practitioner and president of King Wealth Planning in the San Francisco Bay area. He has spent more than twenty-five years in the financial planning industry. He is a Registered Principal with LPL Financial, and has been a featured lecturer and instructor for Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of the “Financial Planning for Career Transitions” course and “The Identity Theft Resource Kit.”

Ethical Wills: A Gift of Wealth Beyond Money was published in the Autumn 2013 edition of the CSA Journal.