Passing Your Wisdom and Values to Your Family: Ethical Wills with Susan Turnbull

Passing Your Wisdom and Values to Your Family: Ethical Wills with Susan Turnbull

Susan Turnbull
Episode 169
The Lange Money Hour: Where Smart Money Talks
James Lange, CPA/Attorney
Listen every other Wed. on KQV 1410 AM or at our radio show archives.
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TOPICS COVERED:

  1. Guest Introduction: Susan Turnbull
  2. An Ethical Will
  3. The Process of Creating an Ethical Will
  4. Topics for Ethical Wills

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Welcome to The Lange Money Hour: Where Smart Money Talks with expert advice from Jim Lange, Pittsburgh-based CPA, attorney, and retirement and estate planning expert. Jim is also the author of Retire Secure! Pay Taxes Later. To find out more about his book, his practice, Lange Financial Group, and how to secure Jim as a speaker for your next event, visit his website at paytaxeslater.com. Now get ready to talk smart money.


1. Guest Introduction: Susan Turnbull

Dan Weinberg:  Welcome to The Lange Money Hour.  I’m Dan Weinberg along with CPA and attorney Jim Lange, and this week, we’re going to talk about ethical wills.  Today’s estate planning techniques can certainly help you efficiently pass your assets and possessions on to your kids and grandkids, but how exactly do you pass on the non-material things, what you’ve learned as well as what you’ve earned?  To help us tackle this fascinating issue, we welcome to the program writer, speaker and facilitator, Susan Turnbull.  Susan is the principal at Personal Legacy Advisors, where she helps clients and advisors learn the art of sharing and capturing personal history values and intentions.  Susan has written two step-by-step guides to creating ethical wills, and her work has been featured in many national publications, including The New York Times.  Over the course of the next hour, Jim and Susan will discuss topics like what exactly ethical wills are, where the concept came from, how an ethical will relates to financial and estate planning, and some of the challenges you might run into in creating an ethical will.  Our show is live, so give us a call here in the studio with your specific questions.  The number is (412) 333-9385.  Now, let’s say good evening to Jim Lange and Susan Turnbull.

Jim Lange:  Welcome, Susan.

Susan Turnbull:  Hi Jim.

Jim Lange:  Well, before we get started, I do want to tell the audience that we actually had you come in.  You flew into Pittsburgh and you gave just a terrific talk to a group of clients of mine, and I thought it was really just a great evening.  Everybody loved it, and I will mention two resources, because I know we have a lot of financial planners who listen to our show.  One is you as a speaker, which, again, I thought that that was a great client appreciation event and a perfect use of you as a speaker.  Also, I take it that if they go to your website, which is www.personallegacyadvisors.com, that they can get most of the information they need?  Would that be the place that they can go, Susan?

Susan Turnbull:  Yes, and thank you very much, Jim, for that.

Jim Lange:  Well, I really mean it.  The only thing that the website doesn’t have is my own personal testimonial, which I gave you a glowing one. 

Susan Turnbull:  I know you did!  Thank you.

Jim Lange:  And the other resource that people, and this would apply to just about everybody, and we liked them so much that we actually bought one for everybody who attended, is your book The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will by Susan Turnbull, and Susan, where can people get The Wealth of Your Life?

Susan Turnbull:  They can get it on the website.

Jim Lange:  At the website.

Susan Turnbull:  At www.personallegacyadvisors.com.

Jim Lange:  All right, so don’t get it at Amazon.  Get it at www.personallegacyadvisors.com

Susan Turnbull:  Yes.


2. An Ethical Will

Jim Lange:  All right, so why don’t we get into the meat of the show, and, you know, usually, I do financial shows and there’s at least something about money involved, but this is not really a money issue.  Even though we are talking about ethical wills, we’re not really talking about money.  So, Susan, could you start the show by telling people what an ethical will is?

Susan Turnbull:  I would be happy to, and Jim, thank you very much for having me on as a guest.  When people hear the term ‘ethical will,’ oftentimes, many people have not heard of the term, and people’s first reaction is, “Hmmm, that’s a very stern sounding term.”  Anytime you put the words ‘ethical’ and ‘will’ together, it’s a little bit intimidating!  And so I want to talk a little bit here about the history of ethical wills so that people understand where that term comes from.  But very simply, an ethical will is a personal letter, or it can certainly also be a recording or some kind of a multimedia creation, but I’m going to talk about it now in terms of a personal letter from you to your heirs or your successors or your trustees, with the idea that this letter or recording would live beyond you and be part of the record of your life.  And unlike an autobiography or a memoir or a biography, which tends to be kind of long and chronological, an ethical will takes sort of a thematic approach, and instead of kind of talking about the outside facts of your life, it really takes a look at what sort of information and what kinds of themes and reflections, what values, some of the lessons that you’ve learned that you would like to pass on as part of your legacy.  So, the intangible aspects of your legacy that you would like to reflect upon and pass on in a written form, or spoken form if you chose to create something that was video or audio.  So, that’s sort of a short definition of what an ethical will is. 

Jim Lange:  All right.  Well, you actually mentioned a couple formats, if you will.  You mentioned letters, which you think of as a classical letter or something that is in hardcopy print, you mentioned video, you mentioned audio.  I’m thinking of one of Walt Disney’s videos that he left behind for people to watch that was very powerful that I saw.  Probably most of our listeners are maybe a little bit more comfortable with letters.  But do you have a preference, or do you think that all are good and it just depends on what you like?  So, before we even get further into the meat of it, I’m just thinking about…I’ll tell you what, I do have, let’s say, an ulterior motive in this in that I would love at the end of this hour that people either buy your book or even without buying your book, actually take the first steps to create one.  So, I want to try to make this a little bit of a practical show, and so is this something that you picture somebody sitting down at their keyboard in front of their computer, or getting out a video camera, or, these days, they could probably even do it on a cell phone, or would this be an audio recording, or was that really optional for the listeners?

Susan Turnbull:  Well, it depends on what media people are most comfortable using.  I have a bias towards creating something that is permanent in terms of something that’s written, that’s on paper, because of the fact that technology can change.  So, ethical wills are intended to be helpful for their audience, and also intended to live beyond the author or the creator, and technology being what it is changes all the time.  So, something that you create in a digital format, unfortunately, twenty years from now, might not be accessible.  So, if someone chooses to create a video recording or an audio recording, if that’s their preferred mode of expressing themselves, I always suggest that people create a transcript of that that’s printed out and that’s included with the flash drive or the DVD or whatever they’ve captured that recording on so that it will last in perpetuity, because that’s the idea.

Jim Lange:  And you also mentioned when we were talking about formats, so let’s even assume that, right now, we’re talking about a print format.  You seem to have a little bit more leeway than a title at the top, ‘ethical will.’  You know, you mentioned letters that talk about values.  Are you a little bit open to not having a very strict definition of an ethical will, but rather some type of written communication that is meant to survive you and is meant to pass on values, even if it doesn’t have the title ‘ethical will’ at the top?

Susan Turnbull:  Oh yes, and think about the fact that over the course of centuries, people have been doing things like this, creating expressions of intent and letters of guidance, kind of love letters that they want to live beyond them.  People have been doing that forever and not calling them anything.  And let me get into the history a little bit about the term ethical will, because that might give us a little bit of context.  You first see things being called ethical wills about eight hundred years ago in the Jewish tradition, when fathers, there seems to have been an historical record, evidence of the expectations that fathers would write to their sons letters of guidance, sort of treatises on what it means to live a worthy or ethical life.  And these were very, sort of, instructive, very proscriptive, and the old examples are really interesting and timeless. 

So, when you read those letters and those words of wisdom from those fathers, you can picture them, and you understand why they wanted to say these things to their sons, because, I think, every caring parent, every caring grandparent, wants their family members, their heirs, to have understood them and known something about what was important to them, and leave something behind that really represents them and that’s going to endure beyond them and becomes part of their legacy.  And so, the impulse to create something like this is universal, and you can see it in so many different things that people choose to do, and I got really interested. 

About a dozen years ago or so, I read about this concept of the ethical will, and I’m a writer by trade.  I was a freelance journalist for many, many years, and when I read about the term and I understood what they were, and I read some of these old documents, and then I read some of the ones that were written more recently, I just thought right off, this is the missing piece of estate planning, and what I saw, was having gone to a lawyer many times over the years with my husband to create wills and trusts as we had children and they got older and we got older, and we would leave the office of the lawyer and we’d have the papers with us, but they were all about our material things, and they didn’t represent us at all, what our values were.  I mean, our values were implied in that we made it pretty clear where we wanted to have our money go, so, in that way, our devotion to our children was clear and our wishes were clear, but there wasn’t anything of our personality or any kind of explicit statement of values or personal history or anything personal at all.  And it just seemed to me as though those documents didn’t capture all of the legacy that we knew that we wanted to pass on.  And, so, the idea that you would create a non-binding (and ethical wills are non-binding, despite the fact that they have the term ‘will’ in their name), it’s a non-binding, very personal document.  The idea that you could create something that went side-by-side, that passed on in some more formal, intentional way, important information you wanted to make sure that all your heirs had from you, that when you did those two together, you would have at least made a pretty good attempt to create a kind of a whole picture of your legacy and what you wanted to pass on that was material and intangible, knowing full well that everything that you want to pass on, everything is impossible to capture in a document, was appealing.  So, you’re really just focusing on a few things you would want to make sure never went unsaid.  When people say, “Well, what should I say?  Where should I begin?”  I say, “Well, think about one or two things you would never want to go unsaid, and if you were to be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, what would you have wanted to have put down that your loved ones would be able to read from you and have forever?”

Jim Lange:  Well, very frankly, after I got your material and I was considering who to bring in as a speaker, and in our office, we’ve done over 2,200 wills and trusts and estate plans.  So, there’s no shortage of wills and trusts that we have prepared, and, very frankly, other than maybe some money going to charity and different charities that isn’t really a direct statement of values and what people knew, we never really talked about that, and I actually think you’re right.  I think that that is a missing piece.  I think it’s great for estate attorneys to pick up on it, and I will tell you that the crowd that came to hear you, they were very excited, and I think a lot of them went home and actually did something, and I also like the fact that you are being a little bit flexible and not requiring it specifically to be “an ethical will.”  So, for example, towards the end of my mother’s life, she actually died at ninety-five three years ago, but towards the end of her life, and I didn’t think she had a long time to live, and she liked to get out and about, so I took her to three different weekends.  I took her to (it doesn’t sound that exciting, but it was a big deal for her), it was a four-day weekend in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio, and then another one to Washington D.C., and, you know, this show is coming from Pittsburgh, so those were both within a relatively easy drive, and then New York City, which was tougher because it was a plane, and she actually had ID problems because she didn’t have a driver’s license.  But anyway, she wrote me a beautiful letter, and, you know, how many parents write their children a letter saying they were the best weekends she’d ever had? 

Susan Turnbull:  Oh, that’s lovely.

Jim Lange:  You know, yeah, I mean, that was really something because, you know, she went to Paris with my dad and she had a pretty full life.  So, that type of thing is something that, frankly, I have it in my drawer right next to where I sleep, and I can’t tell you how much meaning that has, even though it doesn’t have ‘ethical will’ at the top.  But I think that your idea that this is one of the missing pieces of estate planning, and I think the audience, at least, they really said, “You know, that’s right,” because they do have some values that are not necessarily consistent with their children, and sometimes, the written word of somebody who is gone might have a, certainly more powerful impact than nothing, and hopefully, a more powerful impact than the advice that they dispense while they’re alive.  So, for example, I have a twenty-one year old daughter who, I think that she would, if anything, do the exact opposite of what I would say, and if I expressed any values, I don’t think she’d be too receptive!  On the other hand, if I put some of those down in writing, and I have passed, and she has access to that document, I think that that can be very meaningful, and I guess that I’m thinking about it being meaningful for both the person creating the ethical will and the recipient.  Is that fair?


3. The Process of Creating an Ethical Will

Susan Turnbull:  Oh, that is such a good point, Jim.  You know, the truth is, when someone creates something like this, whatever they call it, and I agree with you that what your mother did for you is exactly in the same spirit that I’m talking about, and this doesn’t have to carry a name.  Really, I call it an ethical will because it has a lovely history, but I’m really trying to encourage people to just think about what they want to communicate.  And that’s what I want people to remember…what do you want to communicate in a way that’s going to live beyond you?  And so, you don’t have to give it this kind of formal name of ‘ethical will.’  In fact, the term ethical will itself is kind of a turnoff because it sounds so preachy.  So, it has a lovely history I didn’t want to reinvent, and I didn’t have particularly another thing to call it, but you do see them called, like, personal legacy letters or spiritual will or, you know, love letter to my kids.  I mean, it’s all in the same spirit. 

So, I hope people kind of remember the spirit behind it, and when you talk about your daughter, it does kind of make me chuckle, and it brings up two points that I want to make.  One is that how you talk about your values is really interesting to think about, and people should really think about, well, what do they want to get across and what’s the best way to get it across?  So, it’s oftentimes good to go in the back door instead of kind of giving a lecture to somebody about your values, let’s say, about money, you know, some of the things you’ve learned about what money can and can’t purchase, which is a theme that oftentimes people like to touch on, and, you know, what is the meaning of success and things like that, these kind of global themes.  Instead of kind of giving a lecture about it, it’s oftentimes helpful to just tell a story and let the story make your point.  And you don’t have any control over how your daughter (or the audience or anyone) really takes in that story or takes in that message, and you don’t really have any control over that either, and what you’re doing, really, is doing something first for yourself, and even if nobody read your ethical will, it would still be an important thing for you as the author to have done because it is so affirming, the process is really affirming, and it’s an opportunity to sort of take stock about, well, what is important to me?  What have I learned?  What do I want to live beyond me?  How do I want people to remember me?  So, the process of creating is really valuable even if nobody read it.  And see, I was going to make another point here that reminded me of that…

Jim Lange:  How about if you think of that, because it is time for our break, but I will say that one of the great ways to get started, because sometimes, one of the problems with people who like the idea of expressing values to their children and grandchildren is literally how to get started, and one way to do that is to go to www.personallegacyadvisors.com and purchase the book that we purchased for everybody who came to the event where you spoke, which is The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will, and for our professional group and people who hire speakers, I would highly recommend Susan and you can find out more about her speaking at the same website, www.personallegacyadvisors.com

BREAK

Jim Lange:  And we are talking with Susan Turnbull, who is a great resource for both listeners who are interested in creating their own ethical will, and one of the great ways to do it, and it’s kind of a combination workbook/informational book, but it makes it easy to do it on your own, is to get a book called The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will, and, at the same website for people who are interested in bringing in a terrific speaker about this issue, in either case, they can go to www.personallegacyadvisors.com

So, Susan, I do have a bunch of additional questions for you, but I think that you were in the middle of a thought, and if you wanted to finish it, that would be fine.  Otherwise, we can start with a new question. 

Susan Turnbull:  Great.  I will just finish up the thought, and that was you were talking about your daughter, and you were saying, you know, if you were to do something like this, she might take the opposite advice, or at least be uncomfortable with reading something like that, and the point that I was going to make was that that may be true now, but you never know what might happen years from now, twenty years from now, when she came across that document.  So, that shouldn’t stop you or stop anyone from thinking about creating something like this, which by its nature, is a work in progress.  Anyone is a work in progress.  I don’t care how old you are.  I don’t care if you’re ninety years old.  You think that maybe next year, you’re going to want to say something different, or maybe next year you’ll finally be as wise as you want to be, and I don’t think anybody ever gets to that point where they feel like they’re kind of ready to do this.  And so, I urge people to just start with something short and add to it or change it as time goes on, and as their audience grows and changes.

Jim Lange:  Well, by the way, that’s not, in a way, all that different from doing a will.  So, let’s say that people are a little bit indecisive, or they haven’t completely made up their mind on maybe which charity they’re going to leave money to or which two or three charities they’re going to leave money to, but maybe they have a basis, and I say don’t just wait and do nothing.  Get something down, and if you need to change it in the future, you can change it, and, of course, with an ethical will, you’re not going to an attorney and you’re not talking about an exchange of one dollar.  So, this is in no way a financial concept, although I guess people sometimes do sneak in a few of their values about money.  But this is really more, I guess, life values, if you will, and some of the things that you had. 

You made an interesting comparison to an autobiography earlier.  So, my great-grandmother wrote an autobiography, and frankly, her English wasn’t that good and her spelling wasn’t that good, but it is so meaningful to me today, but very frankly, like most autobiographies, it was probably more about her life coming over from the old country, starting a temple, starting (with the help of many others, of course) a hospital, and it was fascinating reading, and some of the values are implied.  So, here’s this woman who is literally dedicating virtually all her waking time to creating these organizations that, by the way, are still around.  So, some of it’s implied, but it wasn’t a direct lesson or expression of her values.  And what you’re saying is, well, that’s great, but maybe in addition to then something that is really talking about your personal values. 

Susan Turnbull:  Yeah, or to think about it in terms of…oftentimes in autobiographies, the authors don’t necessarily choose to reflect on those facts and to really tell their audience what it felt like or what they learned from their experiences.  So, it becomes a litany of facts and actions, but without much reflection, and oftentimes, family members and other readers wish they had more information about, well, what did those experiences feel like from the inside?  And now, in the area of your great-grandmother, she might not have felt comfortable sharing those things anyway.  But it’s oftentimes what people are really most interested in, you know, is not necessarily a statement of values, but more what it really felt like to live through those experiences.  I mean, wouldn’t you have loved to have known, you know, what it was like for her, how she felt when she was coming over as a young person and how she felt, like, maybe she was different than…how life was different from, you know, the new country and the old country, and how her values changed and what she thought was more or less important.  And autobiographies are wonderful, but lots of people don’t want to write them because they’re way too daunting and long to write.  What stories do you keep in, what stories do you leave out?  And what’s wonderful about an ethical will is that they’re usually only between two and ten pages long on average.  So, you can drill down to some very essential things that either happened in your life or you feel are important in your life that you want people to know about you.  You can do it in a much quicker amount of time than thinking about creating an autobiography where you may think you have to include every single story.  So, that’s one of the key differences, is that they become a way for people to create a record of their life without having to create something that’s long.

Jim Lange:  Well, the other thing that you mentioned that, for example, that is not in my grandmother’s autobiography is how she felt about things, her feelings.  So, for example, you know, we sometimes underestimate the importance of feelings, but I know when I’m with a bunch of guys, we always talk about feelings, right?  I’m looking at the women in the room raising their eyebrows, knowing that that’s the farthest thing from the truth, but actually something that is (my cynicism and sarcasm aside) really important.

Susan Turnbull:  Right, right, and that’s oftentimes missing from those autobiographies.  It was funny.  I was talking to my father-in-law a couple of months ago, and he was talking about helping a friend of his write up the story of his life, and he said, “You know, he’s telling all these war stories and he’s telling all these facts, but nowhere in it does he talk about what it felt like to be in the war and what it felt like to come home.”  And he told his friend, “That’s what your audience wants to hear.”  And he was exactly right.  So, an ethical will is much more oriented towards the feeling side, to the reflection side, than it is to the factual side.

Jim Lange:  Well, how would that relate to…I realize that, in effect, it isn’t really financial planning or estate planning for material goods, but one of the themes that you have driven home, and frankly was a big factor in my own great-grandmother’s life, was her philanthropy, and, you know, she had some money but she was not one of the Mellons (this is a Pittsburgh very rich family), but that is how she spent her time.  So, philanthropy was obviously very important.  How does an ethical will relate to philanthropy and philanthropic planning?

Susan Turnbull:  Well, in a couple of ways.  One of the reasons why I think an estate or financial planner should at least introduce their clients to the concept of an ethical will is that it provides the opportunity to think about what you ultimately want your legacy to be about, what you want to be known for, how you want your values to be expressed in your life and afterwards, and how does this relate to the estate plan, and does the estate plan actually reflect what’s most important to you?  And so, in that discussion about what you want your legacy to be, can come that kind of conversation about well, where does philanthropy fit.  Sometimes, planners have a hard time bringing up that conversation.  You know, it’s uncomfortable sometimes to bring up the conversation about, well, where does philanthropy fit, but there’s a perfect opportunity to ask where does philanthropy fit, and for people to then be able to have a discussion with their planner or with themselves about, well, does it fit?   And what kind of direction do we want it to take?  And what sort of philanthropy would in fact really reflect our values and how we want to be remembered. 

An ethical will can also be used as a way of expressing to your heirs why you chose to give to philanthropy, and if you’ve set up some kind of fund or a foundation, why did you do that?  Which would mean that the heirs are not going to get all of the money.  So, what was it in your values, your life experience, your visions for having an impact on the world that led you to do this?  And so, that is a wonderful way of reinforcing your values about philanthropy in a way that the next generations will be able to read about and, with hope, also pick up.

Jim Lange:  Well, I really hope that our listeners are taking away something, and more importantly than just taking away information, thinking “Yes, this would be a good thing.  Now that we have our will and our trusts and our IRA designations in place,” and by the way, if you don’t, you might consider our firm.  I’ll throw in a little commercial there.  But don’t be like Prince and die without a will.  I don’t know if people know that, but you know, I mean, in a way, his, if you will, ethical will might be some of his songs and some of his product, but he didn’t even have a regular will, and now there’s going to be a bloody court mess that will probably be tied up for years and years and the attorneys will end up getting half.  But also, to actually create an ethical will too.

We are here with Susan Turnbull, the author of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will, and Susan is available as a personal speaker also, which, again, I highly recommend because I hired her myself and I bought one of those books for every person who came, and I think we had close to about a hundred people there that day.  So, this is something that people are very interested in and I got just great comments about, and the source where you can get that information is www.personallegacyadvisors.com.

Susan, I would imagine that there’s a variety of topics that people could write about.  What are some of the more interesting ones that either you have seen or that some of our listeners might want to cover?


4. Topics for Ethical Wills

Susan Turnbull:  Well, I kind of group them into a couple of different categories, and probably the most central topic is the opportunity for people to express how they feel about the people that they’re writing.  So, the opportunity to just say thank you, I love you, I forgive you (if that’s what they want to make sure that doesn’t go unsaid), or please forgive me.  You know, those sorts of messages I think are sort of the heart of an ethical will and one of the main motivations that people want to create one.  There are many other reasons though why people might want to create one.  So, another common motivation is for people who do want to explain what’s in their estate plan; in plain English, want to give some context to it, explain where the money came from, what their values are around the money.  As you mentioned, oftentimes people will use it to reinforce their philanthropy, where those values came from and what they hope the impact of their money is going to be.  There are also people who like to transmit some aspects of personal history, without necessarily creating something long and involved, but personal history and stories, I think, are wonderful to weave in to your ethical wills, in terms of just making sure of this information and facts you want to make sure that everybody has is available to them. 

Another common approach is to think about some of the lessons that you have learned.  I just finished working on an ethical will with a woman, and one of the things that I do is help people write them.  I serve as a ghost writer or an editor for people who want to have some accountability and want someone to partner with to create a document.  And she wanted to pass on to her son some of the lessons that she had learned, and she created kind of a series of paragraphs schematic, each paragraph a different theme about how she felt about friendship and attitude and education.  And so, that was her way of sharing with him some of the lessons that she’d learned, and it was interesting because she said…he was in his early thirties, and she said, “He knows a lot about this already, and I don’t want to make him think that I think he doesn’t know these things, but I want him to know, from my point of view, what I think is important about those things and I need to put them down for him to see that this is how I feel.  Not that I think that he has to follow them or not that I think that he doesn’t know them, but for my own sake, I want him to know this from my own mouth.”  And so, that’s another example of expressing, and there was a lot of personal history in that as she’s telling stories within each of those themes.  So, personal history, values, lessons learned, feelings and expressions of gratitude, and perspective on the estate plan.  Those are common topics that people choose to address.

Jim Lange:  Well, one of the thoughts that I had as you were speaking, and one of the things that I remembered from the workshop that you presented, was that it’s not necessarily one document to everybody, so that you could have, let’s say in your parlance, a message to your wife.  You know, “Thank you for putting up with me.  I wouldn’t have done it!”  Which, by the way, is pretty accurate in my case!  I’m not kidding!  Or, you know, maybe you might have one message for one child or a different message for a grandchild. 

Susan Turnbull:  Absolutely.  I’m so glad you brought that up because you can think of all the possible variations.  So, you could have a different document for…you know, each person would get their own, or you might have something that is a common core, but then you are creating individual messages to each person in addition.  You also might have a collection of writings.  So, my ethical will isn’t just one letter.  I have, like, a file where I just write, when I think of something, I write it down and I put it in the file, and, to me, that takes the pressure off because the idea of creating one thing that’s going to sort of stand for me, and only going to be a singular document, feels limiting to me.  So, it’s much more comfortable for me to think about it as a collection, and I have a file that says “My Ethical Will,” and that’s what goes in there.  So, that, for some people, also feels right, and I really, really try to help people take the weight off these documents because if you think, “Well, I have to be as wise as I’m ever going to be to create something like this, so I’d better do it later,” you might never get to that point where you actually write it.  If you think, “Well, nobody might ever be interested in what I write,” that might be another obstacle for you why you would never create it.  So, you want to just lighten up a little bit and put down what feels right to you at the time, and knowing you could always go back and revisit what you’ve done, or change it.  But put something down.  Don’t let these mental roadblocks get in your way because people will treasure whatever it is that you have created for them. 

And I also want to mention that some people choose to share their ethical wills while they’re alive and share them as a work in progress.  For instance, this woman that I just worked with, that’s what she’s going to be doing.  She’s going to be giving this to her son as a gift to him on a milestone birthday and knowing that she may add to it as he gets older and she gets older.  I’ve worked with a number of people who have done this so that when their children begin to get money from the trust, in this case, I’m thinking about two circumstances in particular where kids were going to be getting money in their twenties from a trust, and the parents really wanted to put that money in a proper context of values and history.  They wrote it down in an ethical will and they had their kids read that, and then that became the basis for a conversation.  That’s a wonderful use of an ethical will.  So, that’s another thing that I urge people to consider.  You know, would it be appropriate for you to share this while you’re alive and have the benefit of a dialogue that comes from what starts off as a monologue.

Jim Lange:  Well, I like that idea.  I also like the idea, and I’m maybe complicating the issue when I say maybe different wills for different people, but I suspect that once you get started, it’s much, much easier to keep going, or to think of different things to say to different people, and, in fact, when I was actually doing your introduction, at first, I had your children and grandchildren, and then I remembered what you said about writing something to your spouse, which, in my case, is very appropriate.  And I can say that, but I think even if I say that, I don’t think it’s as powerful as if you sit down and you write it and you have some type of format that this isn’t just one more file.  You know, in your case, you actually have a hardcopy drawer called “Ethical Will,” and maybe even to people that you are an influence to.  You know, some people might actually have it to the whole world, if you will.  Some people might have it to their community or their church or their temple, but it sounds like you’re going to give people a lot of leeway, but my big thing is (and I’m just reflecting what you’re saying), get started.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  Get something down, and you can always improve it, and just having gone through the process, to me, it might actually help clarify your own values. 

Susan Turnbull:  Exactly, exactly.  

Jim Lange:  You know, let’s say I sat down and wrote one and I had some wonderful thoughts about philanthropy.  It’s hard for me, even if I felt this way, to say I’m a selfish SOB and I don’t care about anybody except me, so I’m going to maybe put some philanthropic thoughts in, and then when it’s the next time for a volunteer situation, or to write a check to a worthy charity, in a way, it’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I wrote these values down, I have to live by it. 

Susan Turnbull:  Yeah, I think it’s a real process of taking stock and really looking at, you know, do my actions match what I believe my values are?  You know, am I walking my talk or not?  And I think that’s a very healthy process for anyone to go through.

Jim Lange:  Well, you’ve worked with a lot of people who have done these.  What are some of the feelings and rewards that some of the people who have created these ethical wills, what is the reward or the feeling that somebody who has created one of these actually gets for both them and the beneficiary?

Susan Turnbull:  It feels great to do it!  I remember this one woman said after a workshop…she’d created a couple page document at the end of the workshop, and she said, “Well, now I feel like I could die!”  And, you know, we laughed, but she hit on something kind of truthful, which was she had put down something.  There was a peace of mind that came with that that if, heaven forbid, she died tomorrow, there would be something there from her that she knew was beautiful and she knew would be meaningful to the people that she wrote.  And so, it feels really validating to just kind of say, “Okay, this is where I’ve come from, and this is who I am, and this is how I feel,” and to go through that exercise just feels terrific, to have made the promise to yourself to do it and then to do it, even if it’s only a paragraph or two, and I have a couple of examples of one paragraph ethical wills that are very beautiful.  So, you know, it does not have to be long and involved.  So, people essentially feel a great sense of peace of mind and accomplishment once they have even gotten started on it.

Jim Lange:  And we are wrapping up our show with Susan Turnbull, who is the author of The Wealth of Your Life, who also did a terrific presentation for our group, and both the book The Wealth of Your Life: The Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will and her personal services can be found at www.personallegacyadvisors.com.  And we have about a minute-and-a-half, Susan, so because I really want people to move forward, what are some of your suggestions on how people can get started or encourage somebody else, maybe even encourage your parents to write this.

Susan Turnbull:  Right, and that’s certainly something that many listeners may say.  You know, “I would love it if my parents did something like this, or my grandparents did something like this.”  My advice is always to start really small, and to not have the expectation that it has to be long, and I always suggest that people start off with a message of gratitude and pick a person or a group of people that you want to create an expression of gratitude for.  And most everybody wants to do this and can do this and can find the words for it, and it doesn’t have to be any more than a paragraph.  But you express to them what they have given to you, and the reasons why you are so grateful that they have been in your life, and if you do nothing more than that, you have created an unbelievably meaningful gift for the people who are going to receive it.

Dan Weinberg:  All right, Susan, thank you so much for joining us.  Susan Turnbull, our guest tonight.  Special thanks to the Lange Financial Group’s marketing director, Amanda Cassady-Schweinsberg, and to KQV’s Alexandria Chaklos.

END

 

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James Lange, CPA

Jim is a nationally-recognized tax, retirement and estate planning CPA with a thriving registered investment advisory practice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He is the President and Founder of The Roth IRA Institute™ and the bestselling author of Retire Secure! Pay Taxes Later (first and second editions) and The Roth Revolution: Pay Taxes Once and Never Again.  He offers well-researched, time-tested recommendations focusing on the unique needs of individuals with appreciable assets in their IRAs and 401(k) plans.  His plans include tax-savvy advice, and intricate beneficiary designations for IRAs and other retirement plans.  Jim's advice and recommendations have received national attention from syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn, his recommendations frequently appear in The Wall Street Journal, and his articles have been published in Financial Planning, Kiplinger's Retirement Reports and The Tax Adviser (AICPA).  Both of Jim’s books have been acclaimed by over 60 industry experts including Charles Schwab, Roger Ibbotson, Natalie Choate, Ed Slott, and Bob Keebler.

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