Remember, You’re Worth More Than Your Money

When it comes to estate planning, it’s time for us all to look beyond the money … with an ethical will.

A woman happily stands with her hands on her hips and looks upward.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Let’s admit it, the financial industry has spent far too long treating end-of-life planning like a mathematical exercise. Rather than viewing it as the very human process it should be, conversations often center around taking an inventory of people’s money and assets followed by a functional decision about where different parts of their estate should go.

This is missing the point because, in truth, the things that make us who we are reach far beyond the number of properties we own or the amount of money we earn. Just ask the families of Dr. King or, more recently, the millions of health care professionals and volunteer community workers who helped us through the pandemic.

In fact, the experiences we have, the beliefs we hold and the decisions we make are as important a part of our legacy as any monetary inheritance we leave behind. And the way to capture all this non-financial worth is by crafting an ethical will to augment your traditional will.

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The ethical choice

Ethical wills first began to appear in the 1990s, usually in the form of a “legacy letter” written just before a person died and then bolted onto their main will as an appendix. Such letters are designed to define a person’s non-financial legacy – from details of the key milestones, places and relationships in their life to the thoughts, feelings, obstacles and lessons they experienced along the way. They can even be a place to ensure important family traditions and values are preserved and continued in future.

But valuable as a legacy letter can be, how can you communicate everything about someone’s life in a page or two? And can you really remember, so late in life, all of the events from years before that you wanted to share and what they meant to you? The answer to both questions is you can’t, which means the idea of the ethical will has to evolve.

Instead of hastily writing it in hindsight during old age, you should be constantly capturing major milestones, lessons and experiences in your life as they happen. That way, future generations of your family can read, watch and, crucially, learn from them further down the line.

Perfectly imperfect

Naturally, many of the stories you’ll want to share in your ethical will would be achievements – both professional and personal. Buying a house. Starting a business. The tale of how you met your partner and went on to build a loving relationship. All of which have incredible emotional value to everyone coming next.

But at the same time, an ethical will isn’t only about painting a picture of perfection. As people, we’re inspired by recovery, so you must also record the times you hit a brick wall, failed and came back stronger. The moment you lost your job, got divorced or faced some other challenge.

These life experiences and snippets of advice from them will help future generations avoid the same mistakes and believe they can overcome similar deep cuts in their own lives. Plus, understanding your story can often bring a sense of ease and comfort to them as regards to who they are and what their place in the world is. Why? Because they know they’re walking in the footsteps of years of family history.

Immortality … kind of

On the other side of the equation, an ethical will can enable you, as the bequeather, to fulfill that innate human desire to be eternal. To leave a legacy based not only on your material wealth, but on your relationships, intellect, ethics and life lessons. And to keep on having “conversations” with your grandkids about their financial decisions and lifestyle choices long after you die.

You can even create a matching program in which your assets are linked to a specific behavior pattern. So, if your goal is to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, missionaries or professors, you can expressly state in your will that anyone who decides to pursue your chosen path can reach into the family trust and get X amount of dollars to do so. In other words, you can align your financial resources to behaviors and values that are important to you from beyond the grave.

Four immediate steps to start your own ethical will

Here are four steps you can take now to begin building an ethical will:

  1. Read a book on what an ethical will is and make sure your financial adviser reads it too. There are loads of good ones out there, but two I particularly like are So Grows the Tree by Jo Kline Cebuhar and Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer.
  2. Invest in a five-year journal or use your phone to start recording moments, milestones and experiences.
  3. Create a “failure résumé” of times when things went wrong and how you learned from them.
  4. Make discussing your ethical will a set agenda item during your annual financial planning review.

Whatever steps you decide to take to get started on your ethical will, the key is to ensure that you’re planning for end-of-life in a way that goes beyond simply passing on your financial wealth to future generations.

Instead, you should be including all the other things that have defined your life and that can go on to help your loved ones shape theirs too. Sure, the math and the money will always be important. But believe me, you’re worth so much more than that!


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Stephen B. Dunbar III, JD, CLU
Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Executive VP, Equitable Advisors

Stephen Dunbar, Executive VP of Equitable, has built a thriving financial services practice where he empowers others to make informed decisions and take charge of their future. He and his team advise on over $3B in AUM and $1.5B in protection coverage. As a National Director of DEI for Equitable, Stephen acts as a change agent for the organization, creating a culture of diversity and inclusion. He earned a bachelor's in Finance from Rutgers and a J.D. from Stanford.