Religious Estate Planning

Summary: Estate planning should be a holistic multi-disciplinary process that addresses all of your important goals. Here’s a general list of concepts to begin the process:

Religion Counts: according to many surveys, 95+ percent of Americans believe in God or some type of higher power. While some define religion as a belief in God, not all religions do. While Buddhism and Scientology are considered religions, Buddhism does not teach its adherents to believe in God; and Scientology does not necessarily require a belief in God. For some, spirituality may be a vital part of their lives, but not include a belief in God. Whatever your religious views or spiritual nature, your estate planning should be consistent with your beliefs and preferences, or even lack thereof.

Think Broadly: Religion can broadly be viewed to encompass your life philosophy, spirituality and values. This inadequacy has tremendous personal impact, because no area of the law is more fraught with religious issues than estate planning. If you endeavored to live your life in conformity with your religious beliefs or philosophy, then your final medical decisions, funeral arrangements and the distributions under your will, the overall “tone” of your documents, should be consistent with those beliefs.

Not Interested? Even if you’re personally indifferent, ignoring religious issues can lead to painful family strife. Make the effort to specify what you do and don’t want. Say you’ve become more “modern” and less observant in your faith, out of respect for family at least consider addressing religious considerations.  If you’re debating whether to conform your estate plan to the doctrines of your faith, consider the solace that religious traditions, and the guidance of a priest, rabbi, imam or other religious figure, can bring to a family suffering through tragedy.

No Religious Restrictions: f you’re not religious don’t assume that nothing needs to be addressed in your documents. This is a dangerously incorrect assumption. If you’ve determined you do not want the traditions of a particular faith, or any faith, adhered to, then it’s incumbent upon you to make that point clear to avoid incorrect assumptions by family and others that religious restrictions or customs should be applied. The diversity of religious affiliation and observance among family members can be substantial. If you don’t want religious observances of other family members imposed you, then a statement that certain rituals should not be followed is vital.

Tailored Wishes: It seems that the most common approach is often a hybrid. Some people will have their documents adhere to all the strictures of their faith, but exclude restrictions on cessation of heroic medical measures for fear of being kept alive in a vegetative state. Others prefer no religious customs or restrictions in any of their planning, but wish only that a funeral and burial be in accordance with their religious traditions. The key is to tailor your documents and communications to accomplish your goals, but with sensitivity and compassion to minimize the potential for negative impact on others.

Details: Agents and fiduciaries should be given guidance, and granted legal authority, to disburse funds for religious education (e.g. supplemental religious education or private school), religious travel (pilgrimages to holy sites), charitable giving (to inculcate a core religious value in heirs), and other purposes consistent with your religious goals. Boilerplate distribution provisions in many documents just won’t suffice.

Will: You secular will may have to be modified to reflect the Baha’i, Jewish, Islamic, or other religious laws of inheritance. The Quran and Old Testament include detailed provisions as to how inheritance must be handled. While there is similarity to both, they are typically addressed in quite different manners in will drafting. These provisions need to be coordinated with tax, estate, financial and succession planning, and ethical issues. For the Christian Orthodox, if you do not provide for your family and relatives, it is as if you have disowned the faith, and you are worse than a non-believer.  For Catholics, general guidelines of charity and justice are vital.

Fiduciaries: Your selection of trustees will have a profound impact on the transmission of values. Providing a detailed and personal letter of instruction about the care and upbringing of young children is essential to transmit values.

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