Writing a will that says something about who you are — not what you have

A man stands in front of his office.
Tex Ostvig is among a growing number of people writing ethical wills – a document that passes down life lessons, values and life experience to family and friends. Here, Ostvig stands in the doorway of his office at the University of Minnesota.
Peter Cox | MPR News

When we talk about wills, we often talk of money, of assets and valuables.

But there's growing interest in wills that pass down lessons learned, guidance for a life well-lived — a legacy.

It’s something Tex Ostvig began thinking about more than a decade ago.

"My uncle, Ardean Watts in Utah, organized his own living funeral,” Ostvig said.

At the time, his uncle was in good health, but thinking about how the things people say about loved ones at funerals often go unsaid in life. In that same vein, Ostvig began thinking about the things he wanted to make sure to pass down to his children and say to his wife.

"What are some things that I think I told them, I think they remembered?” he said. “Maybe I'm not so sure. So … here are the things that I value the most. Here are the wishes I hope for you in our posterity. And here are some life-changing events and stories of my life."

In essence, Ostvig decided to write an ethical will.

"An ethical will is a document that was used by the rabbis around the year 90 or so,” said Rachael Freed, who runs Life Legacies, which conducts workshops on writing legacy letters and ethical wills. She has written books on ethical wills and legacy letters.

She said those rabbis were fascinated by a story in the book of Genesis: When Jacob was dying he called his 12 sons to him and blessed them, and he told them not to leave his bones in Egypt, but to take them back to Canaan.

"So fast forward, the rabbis look at that and they say, 'Aah, a template for us to have men write to their sons the values of the culture,’” Freed said.

Freed expanded on that, teaching women how to write legacy letters, later expanding to teaching everyone.

The idea resonated with Bill Marsella. He wrote a letter to his father, which he hand-delivered on his father's 80th birthday, telling him the impact he had on his life.

Marsella also wrote a letter to his wife, which his daughter gave to her shortly after he was wheeled into surgery for prostate cancer. It was an operation he knew he'd likely survive, but still, he wanted to make sure to leave nothing unsaid.

"And I expressed in that letter my love for her, how God blessed us in our relationship, even as young kids, the five children we had, the grandchildren,” he said. “I apologized for those times in our marriage when my words didn't match actions and I promised her that if I survived the cancer I'd be a better husband and father and grandfather."

In the last 20 years, Freed says, ethical wills have become more popular and more secular.

"Particularly for aging people, it's important because we deserve all the care we get, but we have a responsibility and that is to pass on what our learning and what our experience has been in our lifetimes, so that that wisdom can be used by the next generations,” she said. “So, that's the purpose of it."

Tex Ostvig has been working on his ethical will on and off for several years, returning to it often for updates and edits.

He starts the will off with a quote, something he says he would repeat back and forth with his children when he'd send them off to school.

“It was a call and response. I would say, 'Have heart,' and they would respond back, 'Be smart.' I would say, 'Follow the light,' and they would respond, 'Choose the right.' And so that's one of the reasons that I started that because this is a memory that they've had of me, ever since they were little,” Ostvig said.

“So, there is the beginning of my ethical will."

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