Your Estate is Planned.

You did the responsible thing. You engaged a professional to draft an Estate Plan. The documents are signed, sealed and notarized. You feel at peace that your family is cared for, your assets are assigned, and your estate will be peaceably settled according to your wishes.

And this is indeed so. Many people do not take out the time, or devote sufficient energy, to establishing this level of financial security for their family. It takes a kind of rare selflessness and determination to follow this through and you are to be congratulated for completing this task.

But why stop there?

You can take this act of caring and catapult it to great heights. You can add great power to your endeavor of ensuring a peaceable division of the estate. You can guide your children and heirs not only in the technical division of the property, but in the manner in which you would like it to be settled. You can leave them not only secure, but at peace.


Other Concerns

The legal estate-planning process is a perfect instrument for what it was designed to do, but its scope is limited. Certain parts of your family’s long-term planning require another kind of document.

Families often long for guidance on how to conduct the kavod acharon (funeral services) of their loved ones. They long to connect and bring merit to their dear relatives long after they are gone.

There also can be some “possessions” that a person does not wish to leave over to future generations: unresolved issues, misunderstood relationships, perceptions of disappointment that may have been festering under the surface for some time. There is a way to sensitively deal with those issues, making a bequest of a deep peace and love for your children.

And finally, there is a way to attend to your most precious, non-tangible assets ― the values you worked so hard to develop and live up to, to pass on to your children and perhaps grandchildren. The traditions you received and cherished from your own ancestors can be formulated so that one’s descendants will internalize them, carrying them forward to future generations.

All this can be done, not with a legal document, but with a letter ― the most lasting of letters ― The Tzava’ah.


Your Personal Legacy Document

The tzava’ah, or ethical will, is a Personal Legacy Document that addresses all of these issues. This document will accompany and guide your family for years and generations to come.

A tzava’ah is essentially a letter to your family, a warm guiding hand that reaches out across the generations, across the mortal divide.

In this article we discuss the basic components of this document and outline some practical aspects of writing it.


I.            Shalom

One of a parent’s greatest fears is that after they are gone their children may fall into contention, that family bonds that have endured for years will at that point fall away.

One of the greatest driver of family fights is the inheritance. In your estate plan you have outlined the technicalities of your financial arrangements; use your tzava’ah to explain the meaning behind these arrangements.

For example:

I have put Reuven in charge of dividing the property and continuing to manage the business. I request that Reuven be considerate of his sibling’s feelings as he goes about this task. I also ask of my other children to be patient during this difficult process and constantly give Reuven the benefit of the doubt.

Differences of opinion may arise. I would like your overarching consideration to be shalom ― now and always. A few dollars gained or lost is unimportant at the cost of weakening the bonds of our special family.

In this section you can make clear to your inheritors that your own satisfaction in the next world rests upon the knowledge that they will continue to cherish their relationships with each other. You can request that the children honor your memory by acting with love, care, and concern for each other—and not do anything that could create disharmony among themselves.

In this section too, it would be proper to impart your general outlook about how money is to be valued and used ― not only that which they will inherit, but also with regard to their own financial dealings.


II.            Kavod Acharon

It gives a family great comfort to know that they are conducting your final arrangements in accordance with your wishes. The tzava’ah is a place to address these details. This can be a few general comments or even detailed instructions regarding the particulars of the levaya (e.g., who should be asked to deliver a hesped, what you would like mentioned).

Beyond that, you may outline how you would like your yahrzeit be commemorated. Perhaps request that your family gather on the yahrzeit and read parts of your tzava’ah together and learn Mishnayos.

Here, too, is the place to request specific things that you feel will provide you with zchusim (merit) in the Next World, such as specific mitzvos or Torah-learning that they can do for the sake of your neshamah.

Keep in mind that these requests are not only for your benefit, but for theirs as well. Children crave a connection to their parents after they are gone. Knowing that have fulfilled and continue to fulfill your express wishes provides them with this sense of connection and a lasting feeling of comfort.


III.            Emotional and Interpersonal

When a person departs, there is naturally a void in the lives of their children and loved ones. A special section of the tzava’ah should concentrate on providing comfort to those who are left behind, and to continue to nurture children who are no longer able to feel the active care and love of their parent.

A direct letter from a parent to a child is a very powerful way to accomplish this.

Express your love for your children, your pride in how they have developed, and if applicable, your appreciation for all they have done for you in your elder years.

This section can also be used to soothe emotional distress that may have existed in the parent-child relationship. It can be used to alleviate resentment for events or incidents of the past. It can sensitively address the anguish a child may feel from having disappointed their parents or not being a “good enough” child.

Use your discretion. Some things may be best written in a general letter to all the children, while other, more sensitive issues, should be written only in private letters to be given to each child.

[Note: This is a very potent use of the tzava’ah. Your children will likely take these words strongly to heart and remember them for the rest of their lives. It may therefore be advisable to have this section of the tzava’ah reviewed either by a professional therapist or a close personal friend to ensure that your words are understood as they are intended – to be loving and healing, and not chas veshalom to add any emotional distress.]


IV.            Values

Many are familiar with the great tzava’os of Gedolim or Rebbes of previous generations. They wrote to their many followers to spiritually guide them even after they were gone. While you may not have hundreds of followers, you have been responsible for the spiritual development of your own family, and it is proper to continue to guide them even now.

Express your values to your children, direct them, your grandchildren and even later generations on how they should conduct themselves. Preserve and convey your warmth, unique voice and values for generations to come.

It is especially important here to be true to your voice, to be authentic. When your children “hear” their parent’s personality and coming through, it will have the force of direct conversation from you to them. This will be lost if the parent adopts a tone that is not really and honestly his.

On the other hand, the tzava’ah should reflect the very best part of yourself. Take the time to reflect on your personal values and what has always been important to you. Provide context for how you developed these values. Convey how important it is to you that your family follow in your path and live with these values.

Much of this will be general in nature. For example:

  • “In all your business dealings, strive to make a Kiddush Hashem. Walk away from any business opportunity that is not one hundred percent yashrus. My role model for this has always been Rav Ploni. I have always kept the following sefarim close at hand…
  • “Make sure to keep a constant connection to a Rav—my life has been immeasurably enriched by my Rebbe….”
  • “Learning Torah has been my foundation and rock throughout my life. Never fall away from serious Torah learning as it will keep you grounded throughout your life.”
  • “Avoid machlokes at all cost.”


Here you may wish to make requests for specific hanhagos that you would like your family to follow as well. It has long been noticed that people give tremendous importance to hanhagos that are part of a parent’s tzava’ah. (The Pele Yo’etz writes that people tend to give more scrupulous attention to that which their parent direct them in their tzava’ah then to the Ten Commandments themselves!)

When asking for specific hanhagos, it is important not to overburden your children. Ask for something doable that will make a difference.

Since this section of the tzava’ah deals with the foundations of your faith, and imparts life-long direction to your children, it is advisable discuss the general themes and specific requests with a Rav who knows you and your family well.


An Eternal Accomplishment

Starting a tzava’ah is difficult. You may worry that you won’t know what to write, or that you won’t “get it right.” Remember that you do not have to have a perfect document in one day. This can be a project that you get back to from time to time, and one that you review and amend as you and your children grow.

Finally, the experience of writing a tzava’ah can enrich your own life immeasurably as well. In this process, you will refine your values, focus your commitments, and put your dearest wishes and ideals into words. The first person to be guided by this tzava’ah may be yourself!

Do not limit your Estate Planning to your finances. Write a tzava’ah. It is important for yourself, invaluable for your children and imperative for your personal legacy.