Charitable bequests allow your generosity to live beyond your years

“Don’t Stop Giving Just Because You Die.”

That statement seems so cold and insensitive. But it does grab our attention. That statement was mentioned at a LEAVE A LEGACY® conference I attended several years ago. LEAVE A LEGACY is a public awareness program to encourage people to leave a legacy gift to their church or favorite charities in their estate plans.

Surveys indicate that more than 80 percent of people in the United States give something to charity during their lifetime, and about 70 percent do so every year. A major portion of this giving goes to religious institutions. But only about 8 percent of people leave something to their church or charity in their will or trust. And when you consider that according to other surveys only about 40 percent of Americans have a will, that means less than 3 percent of people leave anything to charity through their estate plan.

Michigan statistics are a little better, but not much. According to a recent survey by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, about 43 percent of us Michiganians (or if you prefer, Michiganders) have a will, and about 21 percent of us provide a bequest to our church or a charity. So, while better than the average, only about 9 percent of us provide for church or charity in our estate plans. LEAVE A LEGACY, through its public education program, hopes to increase this percentage significantly. It will be a great benefit to all of society if individuals increase charitable giving through their estate plans.

Now back to that insensitive statement. In their pastoral letter, Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response (USCCB 1992), the U.S. Catholic bishops encourage us as Christ’s disciples to be good stewards of the many blessings God gives to each of us by sharing them in love and justice with others. We demonstrate this, for example, by our weekly offering to God through our parish, as well as our ministry and volunteer activities.

But what happens to our support of the parish when we pass? Without a legacy gift, it stops. So, consider this: Assume you contribute $20 a week to your parish offertory, a little over $1,000 for the year. If you leave $20,000 for the benefit of your parish as a bequest in your will or trust and that fund is invested at 5 percent, your parish will continue to receive $1,000 each year for many years after you are gone. You effectively have continued to give to your parish in spite of your death. When explained this way, “Don’t stop giving just because you die” doesn’t sound so crude, does it?

Obviously, you must have a will or trust in order to make bequests to the Church or your favorite charity. If you die “intestate,” that is, without a valid will, state law will control the distribution of your property, and that law does not provide for charitable bequests. St. Paul reminds us, “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). Having an estate plan for the orderly distribution of the gifts God gives us during our lifetime is simply faithful stewardship of those gifts.

Now $20,000 in this example might sound like a lot of money. However, for many people their best opportunity for making a significant gift to the Church is through their estate. That’s when life insurance death benefits are paid, the family house is sold, and investments are liquidated — your estate likely will have more cash available than you do during your lifetime. So please give prayerful consideration to “leaving a legacy” to the Church through a bequest in your estate plan. Check with your pastor whether your parish has an endowment fund with the Archdiocese of Detroit Endowment Foundation, which would be a vehicle for your legacy gift. You could also consider a bequest to the Catholic Foundation of Michigan (“CFM”). Your endowment gift to CFM, in turn, can be designated for the benefit of your parish, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, or other archdiocesan institutions or favorite charities.

Even if you already have a will or trust, you should review these documents periodically to ensure that they still meet your family’s estate planning goals and objectives, including legacy gifts to the Church.

Tom Scholler is associate director of Development and Stewardship for the Archdiocese of Detroit. For more information on estate planning and planned charitable giving, please call Tom at (313) 596-7408 or email [email protected]. This article is for your information on stewardship, estate planning and charitable giving. It is not intended to be legal, financial or tax advice. You should consult with your attorney, financial planner or tax advisor for the planning of the transactions suggested here.