Religion and Estate Planning – Overview

Religion and Estate Planning – Overview

By: Martin M. Shenkman, CPA, MBA, JD

Surveys of Americans always reveal that more than 90% believe in God or some higher power. But when it comes to estate planning, religious beliefs, personal philosophies, and other “soft” goals tend to be ignored in favor of more technical legal, tax, and other concerns. Some of the major reasons for this is that most people with religious or other philosophical objectives don’t communicate them to their estate planners, and most planners don’t have the knowledge to address the myriad of different beliefs that their clients might bring. Not only is this easily resolved, but it can minimize what for many families is a major cause of strife. It can assure that if you’ve lived your life in accord with a certain set of values, your estate planning will comport with those values. After all, estate planning should not just be about the transmission of wealth, but about the transmission of values too. You should formulate what your key religious or other goals are. Consider how they might affect your estate plan and documents, then discuss them with your religious or other advisers. Many religious groups have published basic guides for their adherents to understand how their beliefs might impact estate planning. Many have also published sample forms. Collect all of this before you consult with your lawyer. Also bear in mind that this level of customization is unlikely to be available from on line forms, and it may even be difficult for a general practice lawyer who does not specialize in estate planning, to address. Be direct and inquire whether the lawyer has previously customized planning and documents to address faith based objectives. If not, you might wish to find someone who has. It is less a concern whether they have addressed your particular faith (you’ll be bringing materials to them) then confirming that they have the sensitivity and interest to address these matters. The following discussion is very generic and is meant to merely illustrate how wide reaching religious implications can be to the planning process. The goal is to help you identify the topics you should think about and try to find information on before meeting with your attorney. No offense is intended for mentioning only selected religious and religious practices. Space limitations prevent more.

  • Wills, Trust and Bequests: Many faiths require specified distribution patterns. Islamic and Jewish law both provide that certain heirs must inherit portions of the estate. Identify what these rules are, and the extent you wish to adhere to them. If you do not wish to follow them, is there a preferable approach to address that? If you do wish to follow them, identify how they will be applied if trusts and other modern planning techniques are used.
  • Funeral and Burial Arrangements: As a Hindu, you might wish cremation and to have your ashes dispersed in a certain location, perhaps in India. If you are Bahá'í, there is a customary type of coffin to be used. Identify the details you wish to be adhered to. These can be incorporated into a living will, and perhaps included in your will to assure your executor has the authority to pay for the costs if they are significant.
  • Powers of Attorney: Every faith advocates for charitable giving. You may send your children to private religious school. Identify what religious oriented expenditures you would like an agent to be able to make if you are incapacitated. Even if the broad language of a general form might permit these payments, specifying them will give your agent guidance, and prevent a family member with different views from derailing your wishes.
  • Living Wills and Health Proxies: If you are Catholic and of child bearing age, how should medical decisions be made if actions might harm you to save your fetus or yourself? Many faiths have mandates as to whether heroic measures can be refused, or perhaps different mandates if heroic measures once begun can be stopped. Be sure to identify broad directives to include in your document. If an organization serving those of your faith has a form, obtain a copy. Sometimes these forms, while invaluable concerning religious directives, are too simplistic to address other legal issues, so incorporating those provisions into a lawyer prepared document may give you the best legal protection while also respecting your religious mores.
  • Lifestyle Issues, Interest Charges, Business Conduct: Don’t stop with just basic estate planning considerations. If you have a business, Jewish and Islamic law both have proscriptions concerning charging interest. If you are a Seventh Day Adventist and there is a family vacation home that is held in trust for future generations, you might wish to mandate that certain activities should not be permitted in the home.
Think in broad terms so that your beliefs and values will not only be respected, but can permeate your plan and be passed on in the most positive light to the next generation.

Our Consumer Webcasts and Blogs

Subscribe to our email list to receive information on consumer webcasts and blogs, for practical legal information in simple English, delivered to your inbox. For more professional driven information, please visit Shenkman Law to subscribe.

Ad Space