BOZEMAN — Family legacies are often more than just property or money left behind in a will. They may include family values, memories or hopes that the dying may wish to pass down for younger generations.

According to Montana State University Extension educators, individuals can create what is called an ethical will, in addition to an estate plan, to express those values and pass them on to surviving family members.

According to Wendy Wedum, MSU Pondera County Extension agent, and Marsha Goetting, MSU Extension family economics specialist, an ethical will has no legal significance and does not pass property to anyone. An ethical will is a special kind of letter, also called a “legacy letter” or “forever letter.” Common themes of the letters include lessons learned, gratitude toward people or events, and hopes for the future.

“Letters and journals can help soothe grief and become cherished items by those who receive them,” Wedum added. “Writing one can be good for you, too. Supporters of ethical wills say creating one can help you focus and articulate your values. This can help you live more intentionally from that point on.”

Wedum and Goetting suggest focusing on love and encouragement in ethical wills and avoiding criticism or judgement. Addressing difficult topics like regrets, apologies and family secrets, however, can bring closure and peace.

“If you want to write about a bad experience you had, try to use it as an example of a lesson learned, one that made you stronger and more resilient,” Goetting said.

Wedum and Goetting encouraged writing an ethical will on paper, instead of on social media or digitally. A paper copy, in the form of a journal or handwritten letter, can be passed down and saved for future generations. Examples, they said, can be searched out on the internet for inspiration.

Beyond general values, other topics that could be included in the ethical will are wishes for a spouse or partner, children and grandchildren; an experience or person who gave your life meaning; advice to overcome hardships and poor choices; tips to make difficult decisions; meaningful family traditions and memories; moments that brought you joy, inspiration or gratitude; and more.

- MSU News Service