Life insurance? Check. Last will and testament? Check. Ethical will?.... Huh?

It’s a parent’s job to prepare for every contingency, and so we take care of our health, appoint legal guardians, and buy life insurance. While that provides financial peace of mind, many parents are seeking to leave a different kind of legacy, one that comes from the heart. An ethical will isn’t a legal document; it’s a letter to one’s children detailing the values, hopes, and life lessons a parent hopes to pass on.

“Everyone I know who has created an ethical will reports achieving a ‘peace of mind’ afterwards,” says Barry Baines, MD, author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. “For parents of (younger) school-age children, creating an ethical will is, in a way, an insurance policy for preserving one’s values. In the event of a tragedy or premature death, this can provide comfort and be a touchstone for kids on into the future.”

Basically, ethical wills are all about the intangibles at the heart of parenthood. If legal documents are fairly standard, ethical wills are anything but. “The most common themes in ethical wills are a person’s values, beliefs, faith, life's lessons, hope, dreams, love, and forgiveness,” says Baines. They provide the opportunity to express a lifetime’s worth of love and guidance in one document.

No pressure there, right? There's no question that this is a big deal. And an ethical will probably isn’t something you’re going to dash off in ten minutes. You can’t buy a fill-in-the-blanks model at the office supply store. But don’t let writer’s block put you off; ethical wills are supposed to express who you are, not conform to an artificial standard. If the worst came to pass, your children probably wouldn’t care about fancy stationery or perfect spelling; they’d be grateful just to have your letter.

So before you get started, ask yourself what you’d most want your children to know about you and your values. What qualities do you hope to see them develop? What do you love about them, and what have they added to your life? What advice would you give? Baines suggests brainstorming in a journal and creating an outline to see what’s important enough to be included in your ethical will.

While some people create videotaped readings, experts advise keeping a hard copy of the letter, since technology keeps evolving. Store it in a safe place, perhaps with your legal documents. Some parents choose to share their ethical wills with their children when they reach a certain age; others keep it “just in case.” Either way, an ethical will is a way to put down on paper what matters to you. And even more than money, that's worth something.