New Estate Planning Trend: "Ethical Wills"

More and more Americans are viewing their legacy not only in terms of valuables but in terms of the values they can pass on, as well. To ensure that these values are communicated to their children and succeeding generations, many are now writing so-called ethical wills that are designed to complement conventional wills that bequeath material goods. In these ethical wills, the writers explain who they are, their value system, and their hopes for loved ones who will remain after they are gone.

One such will is being written by Gary Hirshberg, 46, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, the fastest-growing yogurt company in the country. ''''I''ve been doing a lot of estate planning, and you can''t say anything [in a will] - you can''t even use adjectives,'''' Hirshberg told the Boston Globe recently. ''''Our will has very little to do with me. . . . I would like a written record and road map of what my wife and I were trying to do, so when there''s a big check for the kids, they know where it came from, and why. I want them to understand where this came from, and to inspire them to think hopeful thoughts.''''

To help him write his will, Hirshberg retained the services of Boston, Massachusetts, psychologist Helene W. Stein and public relations executive Marcia C. Brier, who have started a business writing ethical wills for a fee.

Writers of ethical wills are by no means all famous or 'successful' in monetary terms. Visitors to the Web site can read a wide variety of sample ethical wills, ranging from one by a woman in her 20s who was dying of cancer to statements of values authored by grandparents. The Web site was created by Dr. Barry K. Baines, a Minneapolis physician who became an advocate of ethical wills in the process of helping hospice patients prepare for death.

"Ethical wills are being written by people at many transitional life stages as a separate document and usually shared with family members and community while the writer is still alive,' writes Dr. Baines. 'Ethical wills may be one of the most cherished and meaningful gifts you can leave to your family and community.'