The ethical will

Use a video message to make your feelings known

Reading the will. Anonymous. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The room is dimly light. A large, burnished wood desk sits at the front of the room. Behind it, the family attorney. Chairs ring the desk, with the principals all seated and their minions standing and surrounding them as if cheering on a prize fighter. But there is to be no fight this day. Or is there? Is this the beginning of the match?

The reading of the will after the death of the patriarch or matriarch is pictured in film as a momentous occasion, with the family greedily wringing their hands as they learn the fate of their inheritance. Invariably, someone is surprised and ends up with nothing or some small and worthless token – a final stab in the back from the grave.

Reading the will. Anonymous. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Reading the will. Anonymous. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This grim depiction is not the norm, but rather the sensationalized version of what happens when the head of the household moves on to their great reward. But, what if there is a family business involved?

According to Eric Weiner, author of “Words from the Heart,” it doesn’t have to be like that. H-E-A-R-T is an acronym for the content in his book: Hope, Experiences, Appreciation, Religion and Treasures. After we are gone, it is more difficult to pass along the things that matter to us, but it doesn’t have to be. Writing an ethical will lays out all the things that are important to the writer.

As Weiner writes, “Hopes for the future,” as well as passing along the “religion, spirituality and core beliefs” that make up the heart of the person are crucial to the successful ethical will. While writing a document might be legally the best approach, experts suggest that videotaping your will is even better. A video can get across the emotion involved in the decisions you make far better than a piece of paper. Showing loved ones the treasures you are passing along to them while discussing it via video captures the essence of the item and the moment. The item itself may have monetary value, but what it meant to the owner may be priceless in terms of memory or history.

Several years ago, a book by Randy Pausch called “The Last Lecture” was making the rounds of bestsellers. The book described the lecture he gave to his students, faculty, friends and family as he was dying of cancer and knew that it would be his last.

Few of us get the opportunity to impart some wisdom to the world before we leave it. But why not make a point to share with those who matter something of real value? Some time back, I lost a colleague of mine in academics. She had been suffering from cancer that ultimately went to her brain. Years before she knew her cancer diagnosis, she and her husband adopted a child.  Before she passed, she went and bought birthday, graduation and even a wedding gift for the child, so that she would be present at those special occasions. That is what an ethical will captures – that presence, despite the fact that the person has passed on.

If you are involved in a family business, it is no easier to talk about death than it is for any other family. In fact, it could be tougher. If you are the son or daughter, bringing up the topic appears to be insensitive or – worse –  greedy, and if you are the parent, the topic requires you to come to grips with your own mortality.

This is no easy task for either party, which is why the ethical will works. It allows you to videotape yourself (although there are professionals who do this, too) when you are ready to speak about the various things that need to be said. The video allows the emotion of the moment to come through. Telling the next generation that you want to continue with the family business tradition of giving Christmas hams to the employees comes across as far more real than if you passively told someone your intentions within the context of a document. Video conveys emotions you simply can’t express in writing.

Another issue Dr. Weiner addresses in his book is forgiveness. All too often, I see people who have been alienated from their families. They have either done something that they now regret, or have been angry with something to which they have been subjected. While offering an apology during your lifetime could save years of anguish, sometimes the ethical will allows you to set the record straight. It is not one last chance to say “gotcha,” but rather a chance to say “I am sorry” or “I forgive you.”

We can’t go back and redo that which has been done, but we can exit this world with a clean slate. The ethical will allows us to set things right, which really helps the next generation carry on with the business, and with the business of life. A family business complicates many things, but it does leave a legacy for generations to come. An ethical will makes sure that legacy lives on long after the business owner turns out the lights on the business for the last time.

-David Borst, Ed.D., is executive director and chief operating officer of the Family Business Legacy Institute, a southeastern Wisconsin regional resource hub for family business. He can be reached at davidb@fbli-usa.com.

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Dr. Borst is the retired Dean of Business at Concordia University. He started up five businesses under borstthebrand.com and is COO of the Family Business Legacy Institute. He can be heard every Saturday morning as Dr. Dave at 6:20am on WTMJ radio with the FBLI show- "All Business". Dr. Borst is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and blogger of a variety of topics from religion to politics or any of the topics you are not supposed to discuss.

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