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Write a Different Kind of Will

Having your financial affairs in order when you die makes a difficult time more bearable for your survivors. But leaving a lasting and thoughtful legacy involves more than money.

Martin Kuritz, a retired estate and financial planner, spent more than 30 years helping families economically prepare for the inevitable. His book, The Beneficiary Book: A Family Information Organizer, is a fill-in-the-answers guide that shows readers how to cross those financial t's and dot all the i's. (Here's a quick pep talk on preparing for important money milestones.) But it was his mother who taught him the softer side of estate planning. When she passed away, among her important papers was a five-page handwritten letter to her son composed soon after she discovered she had cancer.

That moving letter -- called an "ethical will" -- showed Kuritz that a legacy of love is just as important as having all of your important financial papers in place. An ethical will is free from the constraints of legal documents such as a living will or a last will and testament. You don't need a lawyer to compose one, and it should be shared with loved ones during the writer's lifetime.

If it sounds like a difficult document to produce, you're right: It may be the hardest thing you ever commit to paper. Kuritz has a few suggestions to get you started. Consider including:

Words of praise to those who deserve it
An apology (if necessary)
A request for forgiveness (if necessary)
An offering of forgiveness (if necessary)
Words of wisdom (without lecturing)
An honest attempt to settle unresolved issues and disputes

Once you're on a roll, you may discover your hidden autobiographer. Consider including some interesting remembrances about you and your ancestors. Share what makes you laugh and what makes you cry. What do you consider the most important things you've accomplished? What things do you cherish most about the person you are writing to? Most embarrassing high school moment? Best kiss ever?

Photos can fade and inheritances are eventually spent. But an ethical will can provide inspiration for generations to come.

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