Ethical wills, first popularized in the Middle Ages, are making a modern-day comeback -- linking the "soft" and "hard" sides of estate and financial planning.
Leading the charge? Susan B. Turnbull, principal of Personal Legacy Advisors and author of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will.
As Turnbull, 55, frames it: "Traditional wills are about all of our stuff. What do I want my loved ones to have? An ethical will answers the question: What do I want my loved ones to know?"
The legacy letter is not a legal document but an instrument to deliver life lessons, a family's history, and insights on everything from business success to personal happiness.
Typically, an ethical will runs from two to 20 pages in length, though some are only a few paragraphs. Turnbull, who counsels financial advisors and their clients about the value of ethical wills, finds them particularly useful for people who:o Want their assets to be viewed within a personal context.o Have created a generation-skipping vehicle entrusting funds to heirs with whom they have little connection.o Want to leave an advisory letter of instruction to trustees or guardians.o Wish to articulate the values behind their charitable decisions.o Are seeking an effective way to communicate thoughts they find difficult to convey in person.o Have history or stories to relate.
Turnbull believes the ethical will is enjoying renewed popularity because many people today are looking to pass on a "non-material legacy" -- values, reflections, insights -- in a material world.
"The world is moving so fast and there's a lot of difference in experience between generations. There isn't a lot of permanent communication anymore; there's instant messaging," she notes. "A lot of people I talk to feel some of the important things have eroded. There are two halves of legacy: material legacy and that which is all about example and values and shared ties. This provides a vehicle for that."
Not coincidentally, the introduction of the ethical will in financial planning engagements comes at a time that more and more advisors are incorporating elements of life planning into their practices.
"There's been a real shift. The truth is legacy is a two-way street. Clients are beginning to ask: What kind of impact do I want to make with my money, my example? How am I preparing the next generation? That becomes tied to specific actions," says Turnbull. "The advisor has a really important role in helping to guide this very inspiring conversation."
Jan Graybill, managing partner of Legacy Planning Partners in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., is a huge fan of ethical wills. In fact, each Legacy Planning Partners client is now given Turnbull's workbook as a part of the firm's planning process.
"This approach gave us structure and a more complete method of delivering the client's true feelings, wisdom and values to not only the next generation but generations to come," says Graybill, whose firm has $300 million in assets under management. "Susan is a true pioneer in how she designs the methods to extract human experience and pass it along. To extract that information is often very difficult. What she brings to the table is the ability to unlock that treasure chest of experience and allow it to be examined by succeeding generations."
Turnbull, who splits her time between Charleston, W.Va., and Boston, is a former freelance journalist who stumbled across the concept of an ethical will six years ago after writing her own family's history.
"I thought it was a beautiful idea, very sensible -- and it struck me immediately it was a missing piece of financial planning," she says. "From the beginning, I thought it was something that would be introduced through advisors."
The centerpiece of many ethical wills is an expression of love and hope for readers, not only a spouse and children but friends and other family members. A legacy letter can also provide a personal context for an estate plan. As an example, it offers an opportunity to explain why you've tied up certain assets in a trust or divided things the way you did. As well, it creates a venue for explaining the source of the wealth: how an entrepreneur, for example, started a firm.
A legacy letter can also spell out wishes for a trustee. "Basically, it's a way to say: Use your best judgment when you stand in for us.
"I'm helping a couple write one now and their message is: We want the money used to support self-sufficiency rather than dependency; the last thing we want is for the fruits of our labor to deprive [our children] of achieving their own."
Following the instructional intent of the original ethical wills, many letters include thoughts on friendship, marriage, managing money and the nature of business and relationships. "This is simply an official place to write some of these things down," she notes.
Conversations about legacy don't always happen in a personal way, but Turnbull says an ethical will can serve as a starting point.
"Expressions that might be hard to say in person can come across strongly in a document like this. The thing that keeps me going is that people feel so good after they do it," she adds. "Writing a document like this is like going to a great reunion. You have a sense after you come away from it: That's part of who I am. I'm carrying those people with me. I can now go into the world with a sense of renewal and a certain peace of mind."
Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md.; the former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, can be reached at email@example.com.