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Last Will and Testament

What our final will says about our values

Legacy: an enduring gift after death. It has often been the vision of humans to become immortal. Apart from science fiction, the reality is that the only way to become immortal is to leave something behind that endures--in what the philosopher Karl Popper referred to as “World 3.” These are items that are shared in the world after we are gone: articles, prose, paintings, music, inventions, buildings, policies, social transformations. For all others that have not had a chance for such Popperian creativity, there is the last will and testament to ensure that after their death, their estate is left to those that they choose.

But sometimes, people have left some weird and wonderful requests. The notoriety of these requests are perhaps more of a legacy than the distribution of the wealth itself. One such area of puzzlement has been the bequeathing of large sums of monies to dogs and cats.

Leona Helmsley the "Queen of Mean" established a $12 million trust to her Maltese dog while leaving $5 million each to her grandsons. Meanwhile Eleanor Ritchey, enriched by the Quaker Oil State Refining Corporation business, left about $14 million to her 150 stray dogs. A California prune rancher Thomas Shewbridge's left all shareholder rights of his estate to his two dogs, who regularly attended stockholders' and board of directors' meetings. The British singer Dusty Springfield left instructions stipulating that her cat was to be fed imported baby food and serenaded with Springfield's songs. Increasing the cat's romantic ambience by also arranging for the cat to marry his new guardian's pet cat. While Doris Duke heiress of the American Tobacco Company—and founding of Duke University--stated that $100 million was to be secured in a pet trust for her dogs.

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While some final instructions are not ultimately upheld in a court of law, they have redefined our meaning of legacy. Perhaps there is a deeper message. One impression from these last wills and testaments is how inconsequential money is and that the best way to transmit this message is by giving it away to pets that do not understand its value. Perhaps there are better ways of transmitting such a message. But is there a better way?

In 2005, a study by Allianz found that leaving a legacy (an emotional inheritance) was far more important to peoples than leaving an inheritance, and that 77% of both “baby boomers” and their parents rated “values and life lessons” as the most important legacy they could receive or leave. Would it be better to write an "ethical" will? A parent’s insight, knowledge and wisdom to transfer to younger generations.

The importance of writing down one's innermost concerns is demonstrated in an old study--which has been repeated many times since--by James Pennebaker from the University of Texas. He found that when people--who had experienced significant trauma--wrote about their experience, they showed positive effects on blood markers of immune functions, and that this continued for six weeks.

Ethical wills are valued by the recipient as well as being beneficial to the writer.

We need to include ethical wills as part of Popper's World 3. What better way to leave the world but to transmit the knowledge that you have gained so that future generations can stand on your insights and reach higher ideals. For most of us, that is all we have to transmit, and it might not be such a poor option.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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