Jo Kline Cebuhar, an attorney and former chair of Iowa’s largest hospice, is the author of SO GROWS THE TREE: Creating an Ethical Will (2010 Murphy Publishing).For more about her and her book, see


     More than 3,500 years ago, the tradition began with Jacob speaking to his 12 sons.  Thus was created one of the first ethical wills.  All these centuries later, the core elements of an ethical will remain intact: it records what you stand for. 

      Consider: 71% of Baby Boomers and their parents say that the most important inheritance to receive from the previous generation and provide to the next is the legacy of values and life lessons — an intangible more important than financial assets or real estate.  Even so, less than one-third of each group actually discussed this legacy with loved ones.

      Here’s the issue.  How do you articulate your beliefs, life lessons and hopes for the future – and, by the same token, get your loved ones to share theirs?  The answer: an ethical will.

      Creating an ethical will can help you sort out which principles you want to pass down along with your bequests.  It also lays the groundwork for the practice of choosing charities that nurture and foster your core values.

      This process is a worthwhile exercise in self-reflection and goal-setting. Anything can trigger the impulse to start an ethical will – a career change, first home, anniversary, empty-nesting, a grandchild’s birth, even a serious illness.  Identifying and examining your core values and true passions can guide future aspirations – a “personal mission statement.”   How better for parents to express their hopes for a child’s future than to create ethical will messages at birth, the first day of school, graduation and marriage?  Any one of life’s milestones can be an opportunity to share wisdom.

     Using a quotation is a simple way to express a core value:  Consider this comment from Henry Wadsorth Longfellow.  “The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.”  My ethical message to accompany that:  From the love of reading comes the joy of endless education.  With education comes options and that’s what success in life is all about.  Celebrate your good choices and learn from your bad ones.  

     As we are the custodians of many family treasures, we will be using the ethical will model to pass them to our nieces and nephew.  For example, I’m the caretaker of the dollhouse of my cherished late cousin Mary Kathryn Kline, a young woman whose life was too short.   As I hand it down to my niece Katie, I will let her know Mary Kay was single-minded, determined, loving, energetic, independent and generous.  My niece Molly will be receiving heirlooms from a long line of pioneering and adventurous women who valued education, self-sufficiency, storytelling and humor.  The ethical message:  her Grandmother Peg lived those ideals and treasured her roles as a nurturing mother and a mentoring friend above all.    

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.


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