It’s pretty common to see the estate plan of a person not match up with their spiritual life. One of those common disconnects is when a person who has lived a life of faithful giving has plans to leave little or nothing to the ministries they supported during their life. On the flip side, when a person is ready to engage in a conversation on this topic, I have some of the most spiritual and rewarding discussions because the essence of a person’s beliefs are laid out on the table. If your plan doesn’t reflect your faith and the way you’ve chosen to live your life, then you need to consider revisiting the issue.
Why Christians Don’t Include Ministries in Their Estate Plan
If giving to fund God’s Kingdom was so important during life, why would someone choose to ignore giving out of the resources they leave behind? A good reason would be that the person was so generous during life that they gave everything they could while they were alive. Unfortunately, that is a rare exception. The three most common reasons I encounter are: 1) they have not planned at all, 2) they want to leave everything to their children, and 3) it’s not something they’ve ever thought about. Let’s dig into those reasons a little deeper.
I have no plan – Even if you haven’t created an estate plan, your state has one designed for you. It will ultimately decide how all your assets are distributed. It should come as no surprise that the state plan doesn’t include instructions for funding the ministries you support. In our role as stewards of God’s resources, it would be a poor management decision to not leave instructions for where the assets will ultimately go.
I want to leave everything to my children – I discussed this topic in depth in my previous article, “Estate Planning – Leaving an Inheritance for Your Children”. The bottom line is that if we’re looking to be a blessing to our children, leaving everything to them isn’t always in their best interest. We need to consider at what point heaping wealth upon them turns from a blessing into a curse and potentially even destroys families and relationships. In addition, as stewards of God’s resources, we need to be focused on what will bring him the most glory and at some point there will likely be better places to put those resources rather than continuing to funnel them to our children.
I’ve never thought about it – I have to admit that it really bothers me to hear this reason because unfortunately the Christian community has failed to teach on an important spiritual discipline. Sure, there is some tension in the relationship between churches and personal finances. Some individuals think that the church only talks about money to fill their own coffers and sadly there are examples where that has been the case. However, solid churches teach about money for the benefit of the giver, just as Paul indicated in Philippians 4:17 when he said (NASB), “Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account.” Even though Paul was undoubtedly thankful for the support he received, notice that his joy comes not from the gift itself, but rather from knowing there will be eternal blessings for those who gave it. Paul is demonstrating his understanding of Acts 20:35 where we are told to “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Giving brings a blessing to the giver and when we fail to teach believers how to give we could be robbing them of eternal rewards. Giving isn’t only limited to current giving though. If the church understood the importance of making estate gifts, the world of evangelism would be completely transformed. Just consider that the Baby Boomer generation is expected to pass $30 trillion through their estates in the next few decades. It’s a tragedy to think that we’re not teaching other Christians how they can participate in reaching the world for Christ through their estates in this time of the greatest wealth transfer ever.
Why Leave an Estate Gift to the Kingdom
There are a number of reasons why Christians give to God during life and many of those same reasons also apply to giving at death. Here are a few of the reasons we should all consider leaving gifts to ministries from our estate:
God is the owner – Psalm 24:1-2(NIV) says “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”. Our current giving is an acknowledgement of this truth and our estate giving is the same. We’re simply stewards, or managers, of God’s resources during our short stay in this world. God blesses us with some of His resources to manage during that time and when our life is over, we get to make that final management decision on what happens next. If someone was managing your assets, you would want them to have plans in place for the future management of those resources. Appropriate plans would be to either pass them on to another manager that would take over faithful management where you left off or you would want them to turn the assets back over to you to find the next manager. Either would seem to be a wise management decision. The one thing you wouldn’t want the manager to do is treat your possessions as if they were the owner and pass them on to people that won’t recognize you as the ultimate owner.
We have an eternal perspective – Scripture tells us that we are aliens and strangers in this world and it is not our permanent home. With that reality in mind, when we think about death our focus shouldn’t be on the things we’re leaving behind because they will no longer hold any value to us. Instead, we should be looking forward to the rich inheritance awaiting us for eternity. With that proper perspective, we should view our assets as an important resource that can be used to bring more people to a saving knowledge of the Gospel so they can also inherit the eternal Kingdom.
Our estate gifts bring God glory – 2 Corinthians 9:11-12 – “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” Just as our gifts in life proclaim God’s worthiness and bring praise and glory to Him, so do our estate gifts. When we make the decision to direct a portion of our estate back to His work, we are acting out our faith and proclaiming that He is worthy.
It’s our last chance to give – We’ve had an entire lifetime to store up treasures in heaven. When we die, those opportunities end. Even though we didn’t pass them out of our hands as a sacrificial gift during life, we still have this one last opportunity to put them back into God’s hands through our final instructions. This type of giving requires no sacrifice on our part, but it still honors God and acknowledges him as our Lord.
We can set an example for our children – Hopefully, we’ve set a good example for our children throughout our lives, but by giving from our estates we have one final opportunity for a rich discussion and leading them by example that could have a dramatic impact on their lives. If they get upset at you giving some of your estate to support God’s work, they likely weren’t mature enough to receive those funds anyway, so you probably did them a favor.
We can protect our children from materialism – If being an example isn’t enough reason, consider the damage that can be done if we leave too much wealth to our children. We want to be a blessing to them, but we should never want to leave them so much that we actually harm their spiritual lives. Materialism is one of the most destructive forces in our society today. When we heap wealth upon our children, we are setting them up to face a great temptation many won’t be able to overcome. We need to think through how much is enough and not leave them more than they can handle. Wealth doesn’t come without a burden as Solomon noted in Ecclesiastes 5:12 (NIV), “The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep.”
We’ve outlived the purpose of our savings – A key element of biblical saving is identifying a purpose for which we are saving and then calculating the amount needed. We can then set money aside to reach that goal. If we hit that target amount, we no longer need to save for that purpose since it is fully funded. If we save more than we need or for no specific purpose, we are in danger of hoarding assets and seeking our security in them rather than in God.
Retirement is my common example since that is one of our end of life goals that we save for. We set money aside most of our adult life to provide for our families once we can no longer work and earn a paycheck. This is a biblical example of wise saving since we are planning to fulfill the responsibility of providing for our families through wisdom and discipline with our finances. However, many people will end up with some leftover retirement savings in the end. At that point, the purpose for those savings no longer exists. Our need for retirement income is over. In addition, since we were prepared to spend it all for our support, it also wasn’t money we were counting on as an inheritance for our children since there may have been nothing left. Any planned inheritance should’ve been designed to come from other assets, perhaps ones that would pass in a more tax-friendly manner too. Since this money no longer has a purpose, our default should be to direct it back to ministry since God blessed us by providing more than we needed.
This is a pretty simple introduction into the idea of charitable estate planning, but we have to start somewhere. My hope is that you will be challenged to think about this issue and consider the impact you can have for the Kingdom through your estate. Even if you don’t want to decrease the amount you leave to your children, you may be surprised at the options that are still available for you to fund ministries from your estate. In many cases, early and proper planning can accomplish a lot of amazing things. All I ask is that you have the conversations, explore your options and seek wise counsel in this area. We often don’t realize what we don’t know until we start asking questions and go looking for answers.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.
***Disclaimer: The estate planning information contained in this article is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. I am not an attorney or accountant and cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and subject to change. You should consult an attorney or accountant regarding your personal legal and tax situation.