Making Your Estate Plan Personal

Your estate plan doesn’t have to be only a bunch of documents drafted by lawyers. While the legal documents are essential, they don’t have to be the complete pack-age. You can wrap it up by adding some personal touches to the plan. This touch often enhances both the plan and your legacy. You also might appreciate this final opportunity to speak directly and informally to your loved ones.

Certainly the main focus of an estate plan should be ensuring that your estate is transferred in the most efficient and economical way to those you desire to have it. Your final goals and wishes for the assets you worked a lifetime to build should be accomplished using all the legal tools available. After that work is completed, however, there is more you can leave to loved ones and that might last longer than a lot of the property.

The personal touch as part of an estate plan is growing in popularity as Baby Boomers enter the key estate planning years. Two steps in particular are being used more often, and I think that’s a good thing. These features are more personal than other parts of the plan. One feature I call an instruction letter, and the other often is called either an ethical will or a family love letter.

I long have advocated the use of an instruction letter to your executor and some of your loved ones. This letter is a non-binding expression of wishes, instructions, helpful advice, and important facts about your estate. At its best, it is more than a letter. It is a notebook with a number of different documents that are well-organized and up to date.

The complete package lists your key advisors and the locations of important documents and property, has copies of the latest versions of the documents, and gives advice about how to handle certain assets and issues. The advice is particularly important with specialized assets such as businesses, real estate, and collectibles. The instruction letter or notebook also contains your personal wishes on issues that in most states aren’t controlled by the will, such as burial and memorial service instructions.

Sometimes the instruction letter goes a step further and explains anything unusual or unexpected in the estate plan. For example, children might receive unequal shares of the estate or someone outside the family (including a charity) might receive a portion of the estate. This letter is a good opportunity to explain your reasoning in non-legal language. That can soothe hurt feelings, answer questions, and prevent long-term problems for the estate and the family.

The instruction letter is one of the best gifts to leave your heirs and executor. More and more estate planners are encouraging their clients to add one to their plans and are providing model forms or sample questions to guide the preparation. The letter saves time and money, eases the burden at a stressful time, and helps ensure the estate is administered according to your wishes.

You can find more details about preparing the instruction letter and the documents to include with it in my report, To My Heirs. The latest version is an editable PDF document. You can either print it out and enter your information into it by hand or enter the information directly on your computer. The PDF contains forms you can complete that will ensure your executor and heirs handle the estate efficiently and the way you want. You can learn more about the report and order it in the Bob’s Library tab at the web site at

An estate plan can be further enhanced and personalized with a document known generally as an ethical will. It is addressed to family members and perhaps other loved ones and is not legally binding. The ethical will isn’t directed at practical, immediate issues; it is more philosophical and personal.

The ethical will springs from Jewish tradition. There are examples of ethical wills in the Old Testament (Genesis Chapter 49; 1 Kings Chapter 2) and other Hebrew literature.

The ethical will often is used to pass one’s personal and family history, wisdom, and life lessons to loved ones. Usually it is addressed to the immediate family, but some people have written ethical wills to be read at their funerals or memorial services. The document is not supposed to focus on death or other negative topics. Instead, it is meant to be uplifting, philosophical, informative, instructional, and at times humorous.

The intent of an ethical will is to make sure your children or other loved ones know what really mattered to you or what you wanted for them. Discussions about these matters don’t occur often enough in most families or get lost among other discussions and activities of busy lives.

An ethical will can be fairly simple. A father might encourage his children to visit and call their mother regularly and look after her needs. Or a parent might explain why special attention was directed to the needs of one of the siblings and encourage the others to continue that practice. Some ethical wills encourage youngsters to continue in the parents’ faith and raise their children in that faith.

Typically the ethical will is a separate document. But it can be incorporated into or even be the regular will. It doesn’t even have to be a document. It can be a video or audio recording. Today it is fairly easy to sit in front of most personal or tablet computers and make a video recording. Just be sure the file of the recording gets to the people you want to see it.

The classic example of the ethical will or family love letter probably was Jack Kelly’s. He was best known as actress Grace Kelly’s father but also was a successful contractor. Kelly decided to write the will himself in his own style and integrate instructions about his property with observations about life. Consider a few excerpts:

“I want you all to understand that U.S. Government Bonds are the best investment, even if the return is small…. As the years gather you will meet some pretty good salesmen who will try to sell you everything from stock in a copper or gold mine to some patent that they will tell you will bring you millions, but remember that for every dollar made that way, millions have been lost. I have been taken by the same gentry but that was perhaps because I had to learn from experience….

“To Kell, I want to say that if there is anything to this Mendelian theory, you will probably like to bet on a horse or indulge in other forms of gambling — so if you do, never bet what you cannot afford to lose and if you are a loser, don’t plunge to try to recoup. That is wherein the danger lies. ‘There will be another deal, my son, and after that, another one.’…

“In this document I have given you things, but if I had the choice to give you worldly goods or character, I would give you character. The reason I say this is that with character you will get worldly goods, because character is loyalty, honesty, ability, sportsmanship, and, I hope, a sense of humor.”

I don’t recommend writing your own will in this manner, but writing an ethical will or a letter that reflects your personality and philosophy in this way can be a good gift for your loved ones. Remember it doesn’t have to be written. You can make a video or audio recording.

An ethical will gives you a chance at a little bit of immortality. You might be remembered for what is actually important to you instead of the random memories of others. You can find a little more on ethical wills in The Rich Die Richer and You Can Too by William D. Zabel, if you can locate a copy. If you do, keep in mind that much of the estate tax information is out of date.