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Leaving a Legacy of Life Lessons and Values

Trends* More people are drafting 'ethical wills,' in which they leave words of wisdom in addition to possessions to their heirs.

July 09, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — The yogurt mogul wanted to vanish into the chair in his lawyer's office. On the pages before him early this year, the cold, impersonal language of his final will and testament screamed out. He particularly disliked the term "issue" to describe his three children.

Right then, Gary Hirshberg decided to "bring some humanity" to a document that would outlive him. In drawing up an "ethical will," the chief executive of Stonyfield Farms Yogurt joined a small but growing movement to bequeath values and life experiences along with material assets.

Updating an ancient model, one or two simple pages--handwritten, tapped out on a computer or videotaped--can offer thoughts for future generations, extended histories of families or businesses and explanations for life choices that were never discussed before. Some use the occasion of impending death to pour out their souls on paper, but most ethical wills are written by healthy, middle-aged adults. Unlike conventional testaments, moreover, ethical wills often are read aloud or played while the authors are still alive. Family members may even help edit them.

Those who pen these personal essays point out that modern medicine means many people die tethered to tubes, unable to speak. Scattered families make scenes of deathbed reconciliation precious and rare. Those who are drafting ethical wills say a written document guarantees that important messages will be conveyed.

"I especially wanted to be sure that any money that is left comes with the message of why--and how--it was earned," said Hirsh- berg, 47, of Concord, N.H. "It was an opportunity to reach across the generations and put me and my intentions and my soul into full view of anybody who cares to read it."

Also known as legacy statements, ethical wills date to the Old Testament story of Jacob, who bestowed a blessing on each of his 12 children before he died. On a small scale, the concept was rediscovered about five years ago. But since January, at least one book about ethical wills has been published, a Web site is thriving and consultants are teaming up with attorneys and financial planners to include ethical wills in estate packages.

Rethinking Their Ethics

Some baby boomers--members of a generation that long has prided itself on doing things differently--are embracing ethical wills as a way to put a personal mark on life's grand finale. Many say the Enron debacle and other corporate scandals have made middle-aged businesspeople rethink their own codes of ethics. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 also boosted interest in ethical wills, affording both a reminder of life's fragility and an incentive to pass along lessons that can grate when delivered at the dinner table. Encompassed in an ethical will, advocates maintain, these same admonitions become loving and sweet.

Children of any age tend to tune out when parents give them advice, said Kenneth Grundfast, a Boston physician. "There is too much of it over too many years, and it loses its impact because it is daily," said Grundfast, 58, whose own ethical will focuses on "the importance of honesty, the importance of giving to others, and the treachery of getting involved in little falsehoods or little financial subterfuges."

These personal testaments have no legal standing--and, in fact, some argue, could confuse or even contradict the distribution of tangible possessions through an official will. There is also the risk that an ethical will can resemble a voice of reproach from the grave: the last big I-told-you-so.

But many lawyers are nevertheless encouraging clients to supplement traditional testaments with an ethical will. Many who have written them say they feel good about leaving behind something that their heirs won't have reason to fight about.

"To be honest," Hirshberg said, "the elegance of this whole idea was in its simplicity. It was so obvious, and the process was so satisfying. I just sat down and sort of burst it all out. Now it is a living document."

Because ethical wills are not officially recorded, no one can say for sure how popular they are. In Minneapolis, Dr. Barry K. Baines said that when he first began discussing ethical wills with hospice patients about five years ago, they looked at him blankly. Baines recalled explaining the idea to one indigent patient who worried that after he died, "there would be no trace of him left on this Earth."

Baines, who had stumbled across the idea in a library book, told him: "There's this thousands-of-years-old tradition--people can bequeath their values. Everyone has hopes and dreams. You don't have to be educated or successful."

The patient, a man in his late 40s, had a family he loved very much, Baines said. But he had little money and only a few meager possessions.

"The man grabbed on to this the way a drowning person would grab a life preserver," Baines said.

Launched a Web Site

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