There are a few things Maureen White McCormick would like to tell her three nieces, nephew, and stepdaughter.
She wants to let these young adults know, for instance, that life doesn't always turn out the way you plan. She'd like to reassure them that it's all right to follow an unconventional path. But because McCormick doesn't see her relatives often - all in their 20s, they live in Missouri, Massachusetts, Delaware, and North Carolina - she'd rather not spend precious time with them "preaching."
That's why McCormick, a 54-year-old paralegal, sits down most Saturday mornings, pen and spiral notebook in hand, to record her values, turning-point experiences, and philosophy of life in her ethical will.
In longhand - "because I think people's penmanship said a lot about them" - McCormick has written about starting college before she was ready, dropping out, then completing her bachelor's degree from Temple University by taking one course at a time for more than a decade. She's written about the surprise of getting married for the first time last year. She scribbles ideas on the long daily train ride from Coatesville to Center City and stores them in an accordion file.
"This is a way to bequeath my most precious intangible assets" to the next generation, McCormick said. "Once I learned about it, I couldn't understand why everyone didn't have an ethical will."
These days, more people do. After a popular guidebook on ethical wills was published in 2002, a host of books, websites, workshops, and "personal legacy advisers" followed. Financial advisers and estate planners even began to embrace the documents - also called "legacy letters," "letters to the future," or "spiritual wills" - as a companion to legal wills.
Then the economy tanked. At a time when many people are watching their tangible assets wither, ethical wills are an increasingly popular way to pass on values that seem more likely to endure.
"I'm sensing a sea change in the level of interest in ethical wills" fueled partly by baby boomers coming face-to-face with questions of mortality, meaning, and legacy, said Barry K. Baines, the Minneapolis-based hospice physician who wrote the seminal Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. He has trained about 100 people - including financial planners and the staff of senior-housing facilities - to conduct ethical will-writing workshops, and he plans to increase the number of training sessions he'll offer in 2011.
Patti S. Spencer, an attorney in Lancaster who has specialized in estate planning and trust administration for 30 years, said these days, estate planning includes a greater emphasis on establishing your legacy - defined broadly to include "personal values" rather than just material wealth.
And Susan Turnbull, founder of Personal Legacy Advisors, a company based in Boston and Charleston, W.Va., and author of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will, notes one more measure of increased buzz: the Google-alert that lets her know when the term ethical will pops up on the Web. She used to get a notice about once every two weeks; now the alert spits out two or three references a day.
For Jeffrey Dekro, 59, of Mount Airy, an ethical will was not a new idea, but a powerful and ancient practice, one rooted in his study of Jewish mysticism and medieval texts. He first drafted an ethical will about 10 years ago; now, he revises and updates it each year on his Hebrew birthday, which falls on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, customarily a time of reflection and self-assessment.
Dekro, president of the Isaiah Fund, an interreligious loan fund for affordable housing around New Orleans, says that when he first sat down to write his ethical will, "one of the things that really astonished me was that it just started flowing." Now, it takes him several hours each year to edit and add to the document, which includes "blessings on people, my wishes and hopes," thoughts about passing on objects such as his books, and practical instruction about disposition of his body after death. "When I finish, relief just flows through me like a big sigh: Ah, now I can go back to my living."
While Dekro wrote his ethical will with an audience of family and very close friends in mind, the annual exercise turns out to be largely for himself. "It's a real calling-to-accounts: self-reflection, prayer, grinding myself up and putting myself on the hot coals, all of those things.
"I think it's important that people do ethical wills of some sort because it's a way to think about our deaths. And I think we need to think about our deaths, because it helps us think about how we want to live."
That confrontation with mortality is one reason why people may resist writing ethical wills, said Baines. Jo Kline Cebuhar, a former real estate and tax attorney who published So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will in October, said some people believe ethical wills are only for those nearing the end of life.
"This isn't just for the person in hospice," she said. "It's for the young parent who wants to write that special letter the day their child is born, or on the day they graduate. Turning points really should be the catalysts, whether times of sadness or times of joy."
Cebuhar encourages creative approaches: an ethical will could be an annotated scrapbook, a PowerPoint presentation, or even an "ethical cookbook" of recipes augmented with family stories and personal reflections.
She, Baines, and others encourage writers of ethical wills to share them while they are living, rather than seal the documents to be opened after death. "Often, it is a way to start healing some hurts," Baines said. "When you share this document with people you care about, you live your life a bit more deliberately, because you've gone public with your core values."
A desire to preserve those core values prompted Sean Moran, an executive vice president for MTV who lives near Red Bank, N.J., to hire Manhattan-based Memoirs Productions to make a video ethical will of his father.
Moran, 45, realized that his four young children - now 8, 7, 4, and 17 months - might not know their 81-year-old grandfather long enough to really absorb his stories and beliefs. The project began in 2009; executive producer Iris Wagner interviewed Moran's father in six 90-minute weekly phone calls, then she and a film crew spent an entire day filming him and his wife in their Rhode Island home.
Last July, the entire Moran clan gathered for a lasagna dinner and a screening of the 55-minute DVD, titled "Life Stories and Legacy of Values of Martin Andrew Moran, Jr., with Shirley Ann Cain."
"There wasn't a dry eye in the place," Moran said. "There were a lot of laughs. Such richness in the room. So many times these things are retrospectives, done after the person is gone. But there he was, living and breathing. I think it will be priceless for our family's history."
Wagner acknowledges that only an elite group can afford her broadcast-quality ethical wills, which cost "thousands to hundreds of thousands" to produce. But what motivates her clients is the same urge that prompts McCormick to sit down each weekend with her spiral notebook.
"In the past two years, when we've had this huge influx of business and I asked clients why, they said, 'Because it really matters now,' " said Wagner. "They said, 'We lost a ton of money in the market. We realized that our valuables can be lost, but our values can be preserved.' "