To mark her 60th birthday, Muriel Dance sent her children a special kind of will — one that bequeaths her beliefs, ideals and dreams...

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To mark her 60th birthday, Muriel Dance sent her children a special kind of will — one that bequeaths her beliefs, ideals and dreams, rather than money and material goods.

Printed on fancy paper and signed with a beautiful pen, the will offers praise, reflections on the mother-child relationship and a list of personal principles.

“Be kind … Ask questions … ” suggests Dance, who directs continuing education at Antioch University in Seattle. “Reach out to strangers … Make your bed before you leave the house in the morning … express your gratitude … Find something to enjoy and rejoice in every day. … “

Such a document is typically called an ethical will and is rooted in ancient religious tradition, especially Judaism. Across the ages, it has taken on many forms, from deathbed blessings to spiritual testaments to lists of instructions. It can be shared after death or while the author is still alive.

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“It’s as important as your will that passes on possessions,” Dance said. “I probably spent more time on my ethical will than the will I wrote with the help of an estate attorney.”

It’s also an idea whose time has come in this busy, modern world, part of what’s being called a nationwide “Conscious Aging Movement.”

“There’s an insatiable desire to share and understand the depth of who we are … to think deeply about what is life and what is death,” said Sandy Sabersky, executive director of Elderwise, a Seattle nonprofit agency that offers services for older adults.

An ethical will is not legally binding. But creating one also is being promoted as a crucial part of estate planning, especially for wealthy families who want to encourage responsible financial stewardship.

Organizations such as Children’s Regional Hospital & Medical Center and United Way are advising their donors to go through the exercise, and Woodland Park Zoo will sponsor its first ethical-will-writing workshop in the next few months.

Some financial advisers are suggesting clients create overarching legacy plans that include writing an ethical will.

“Financial assets transferred without the work ethic, traditions and values that built the wealth can quickly be lost,” said Michael Miller, president of Capital Planning Corp. in Bellevue.

Anne Knapp, manager of gifts, foundations and planned giving for the zoo, suggests another reason ethical wills are coming into their own.

We as a society “are increasingly valuing the life lessons that we learned from senior generations in our family,” she said.

Values passed on

In 1966, Mike Bumstead, of Enumclaw, started a manufacturing firm with his father and brother in a one-car garage.

The company grew to become a major player in the aircraft industry, and its sale left the Bumsteads free of financial worries.

Now he and his wife, Diane, are trying to help younger generations use and preserve the money wisely, to help themselves and others less fortunate.

“The most important issue is driving your ethics and values down to your grandchildren so they don’t spend it and waste their life away,” Mike said.

The couple communicate regularly with all their kids and grandkids about what’s really important. But they’re also creating a document that spells it all out, to be read at the annual family meeting this summer.

Ethical wills often are created or shared during a significant event such as marriage, birth or serious surgery.

Before Patti Lowery had major surgery in 1983, she wrote just-in-case letters to her four foster children, her sister and nieces and nephews.

The message was simple: “Look for the good in people. You have enough love in your heart for everybody. Do a good deed and don’t expect anything back.”

Lowery, a retired Sears employee who now works at a Shoreline liquor store, tries to live out her beliefs. In her spare time, she volunteers to assist people with disabilities with housecleaning and providing transportation.

Recently, she started updating the letters to her loved ones; they’ll be distributed when she dies.

“My family is a circle of strength and love. With every birth and every hug the circle grows,” she wrote.

Not surprisingly, the exercise of writing an ethical will often inspires a person to live a more ethical life.

“You see yourself in a bold light,” said Rabbi Elana Zaiman, who teaches ethical-will-writing workshops here and around the country and works at the Caroline Kline Galland home, a skilled-nursing facility in Seattle.

“You’re holding yourself to the values you believe in and want to act out.”

Muriel Dance uses her will as a kind of guidepost — “it’s kept me more on center.”

She blesses each morning, takes long walks, helps a friend through chemotherapy and has flowers delivered to herself once a week. She also makes her bed.

And, recently, when faced with a career opportunity, she reread her ethical will asking: “How does this square with what I told my kids?”

She turned the opportunity down because it didn’t reinforce her values.

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or

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