A will is a legal document that details the inheritance of property from one party to another through an intermediary. An individual can choose to express how to pass on any kind of property through another party, usually a lawyer, to another individual, usually a family member. However, an ethical will is different in that it is an inheritance of values rather than of things.
An ethical will has existed all throughout history mainly in Jewish communities, until recently. These wills passed on a set of values, beliefs, and ideals to help guide those who will receive the will. The earliest record of an ethical will appears in the bible, where Jacob offers blessings to his sons in Genesis 49.
Ethical wills are traditionally written documents that detail a set of ethics that an individual wishes to pass on to another, usually from within the family and to a future generation. Despite the traditional form of the ethical will as written, many continue to pass on this inheritance of values orally.
An ethical will is not necessarily different from the writings of spiritual or motivational writers, but the intent is what clearly delineates an ethical will from a motivational or spiritual book. The content of an ethical will varies as it can describe life experiences, detail ways in which the individual wishes to be remembered, explain past, present, and future actions, and provide an assortment of instructions about how to live one’s life based on how the writer has lived his or hers.