In this, the first of two articles, I get into the sensitive and sometimes emotional subject of stewardship as it relates to estate planning.
Whether you are older and already in retirement, or younger and this is perhaps the farthest thing from your mind, this is an important subject. Why? Because it is the way we steward the property God has given us now to ensure that they are managed well after we're gone, and also one of the ways we care for those we love .
This article is focused on legacy and estate planning and the next one will get into the practical aspects of putting your plan into writing through your will and other documents.
Death and taxes: a certainty
Not to be morbid, but the end of your retirement is usually your death. (Unless you go back to work in your 80s or 90s, which is highly unlikely.) Sorry, that's just how life works – death is a reality for all of us. Each of us has an appointment with death (Hebrews 9:27), but it isn't on any of our calendars.
And that's one of the big challenges with this topic and how to plan – we don't know when (or how) it will come, just that it will. As Benjamin Franklin famously noted…
…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
Death and taxes – they are two of our least favorite topics, also two of the most inevitable. But if we know that something is inevitable, shouldn't we plan for it if we can?
In keeping with the generally positive, hopeful and constructive tone in this blog, I'm not real inclined to talk about death or taxes. But it is necessary as planning for both is part of wise retirement stewardship.
Nobody really enjoys thinking about the end of life. However, if you are a Christian, you have the great hope of eternal life after you leave this earth, which you can anticipate with joy…
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace… 2 Thess. 2:16 (ESV)
The most important thing we can do now is to think about and plan our legacy and then rest in the peace and joy of our salvation.
What is a legacy
A couple of years ago, I had the honor of presenting a eulogy at my father-in-law's funeral. He was like a second father to me. What I said didn't have a lot to do with his accomplishments (raising a family, years of hard work, owning a business, etc.), but rather the personal impact he had on me, his family, and others who knew him – his kindness and generosity, his heart to serve others, his faithfulness in his local Church. That was the main legacy he left behind.
According to the dictionary, a legacy is anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor. Ask yourself this question: What will your family and friends say about you after you're gone? What will your legacy be?
I am inclined to wonder what I am already leaving behind – good or bad – that is making a lasting impression on those around me. (I'm quite sure it's not all good, but I hope some is.) A famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said…
A righteous man is one who lives for the next generation.
That puts how we live our lives and our stewardship of all God has given us in a different light. It isn't just about being debt-free nor having enough to live on in retirement. And it isn't just about the money you leave behind either. It includes godly character qualities like integrity, trustworthiness, faithfulness, and generosity. Combining a legacy of a financial inheritance (possibly) along with wisdom and godliness ensures that the next generation will also manage what God has given wisely and for his glory – stewardship begets stewardship.
In Dave Ramsey's latest book, The Legacy Journey, he says it's about…
…living a legacy now, and leaving a legacy that will bless your family, the community, and the whole world for years to come.
"Living and leaving" sums it up pretty well. Yes, he's focusing on is building wealth once you're out of debt and being a responsible steward of all that God has given you and making a plan (an estate plan) to impact your family, community, the church, and others when you're gone. But he's also talking about a present day legacy – being an example of how to live for Christ, impacting the lives of others in positive ways, and teaching our children how to manage God's resources for his glory.
In his book, Dave makes a strong case for leaving a financial legacy (money and how to steward it well) to our children. I certainly don't have a problem with leaving money to family members, but I don't think there is necessarily a biblical mandate for it. This is a very individual, personal decision.
Perhaps you will need to spend it all to support yourself in retirement (many will). If not, and you want to leave all your money to your church or a ministry of some kind, or give it to the poor, I would encourage you to do so. There may be times when it would less than optimal to leave money to a family member if they do not possess the ability to manage it wisely – it could actually do them more harm than good. Everyone's situation is different.
Living your legacy
Although our legacy can include an inheritance, I think it's much bigger than that.
I think our legacy is actually the sum total of all the various ways we have impacted the lives of others while we were on this earth, financially and otherwise. It also includes the ways we want our memory to live on, especially with our family and friends.
We certainly need to think of our legacy while making important financial decisions and taking action in the present. We have to think about the short-term impacts of our decisions, but also the longer term generational impact they may have in the future.
You "live your legacy" while you're alive, and you can use an estate plan to "leave a legacy" when you're gone. I think the former is more important than the latter as most people want to live a meaningful life and have a positive impact on others before they're gone. One way to do that is to by creating a legacy while you are alive for family, the Church, and charity – using your money to help those you love and also those in need.
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 2 Corinthians 9:10-11 (ESV)
Leaving a legacy
One of the ways you can leave a legacy is through estate planning. Your estate is also a wonderful opportunity to bless others – your family, friendd, and those in need with a portion of your lifetime "increase" in property.
Many people think estate planning is mainly a concern for older people or only those with "large" estates. That's a bad assumption. Almost everyone needs to be concerned with this, but especially couples and those with children.
The central part of an estate plan is your written plan – your will. A will is how you put your plan into action once you're gone. If you're younger, you may have wondered if you need a will. Or, perhaps you've got questions about what biblical estate planning would actually look like. There are quite a few things to think about and decide before you write your will.
Even if you're young (for me, that means anyone under 50), start by listing your priorities and commitments before you take any estate planning actions. This list will probably include children and grandchildren, but it may include nieces and nephews. It also may include parents, brothers, and sisters. Very likely, it will also include a spouse. In addition to relatives, you may feel a commitment to organizations like churches, charities, mission organizations, and perhaps even schools.
If you have a moderate-to-large estate and are well into retirement, you may want to begin annual gifting. You can do this under the Uniform Gift to Minors and give up to a specific amount (currently $13,000, but a married couple could give up to $26,000) without any gift tax liability. This reduces your taxable estate, but it obviously decreases your financial flexibility.
Once you have an idea of the people and organizations that you want to help out, start thinking about the portion of your estate that you'd like each of them to have. Make sure you and your spouse come to an agreement on this.
This all may sound fairly simple and straightforward. If only it were so. Some of the difficult questions and issues that may need to be addressed are:
- The children are too young to handle money, even if you'd like to leave it to them.
- One of the people you'd like to help (e.g., a disabled relative, your parents) can't handle money any better than a child.
- Perhaps there is a previous spouse and children involved, and that spouse has remarried.
- You can't decide whether to allocate the estate on the basis of love or on the basis of need. Do you use equal percentages or some other approach?
- You have serious concerns about a potential beneficiary's ability to wisely manage money, especially any he/she might receive as a gift.
- Perhaps you have a special needs child – what do you need to consider in those cases?
- One or more potential beneficiaries clearly feel that they "deserve" a certain portion (probably large) of the estate. Do you agree – do you need to deal with this issue before you die, or can it wait?
- How do you handle property other than money? Do you just put it all in a pot and let the heirs divide it up, or do you want to give specific things to specific individuals?
- If there is a family business involved, how do you want that dealt with?
- Your spouse says "I'm not ready to deal with that issue." Any plans for even a simple will are rejected year after year.
Most of these are not complex legal questions – they are difficult and sensitive personal issues. You will have to wrestle with these tough issues before you make any final decisions. There is no easy way to do this other than to sit down and work through them one by one. And remember, you can always change your mind as circumstances dictate.
Leaving an inheritance
I have already pointed out that our legacy involves much more than leaving some kind of inheritance. However, the Bible does have something to say about this…
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children. Proverbs 13:22a: (ESV)
So, the Bible mentions leaving an inheritance, which can be interpreted different ways. Many scholars think this verse is about money, but many also say its meaning is broader than that. If it includes money, then what is the "right amount" to leave for children or grandchildren, or even nephews or nieces?
There are no absolutes, only guiding principles. As I have stated before, this is a very personal decision, but here are some things to think about:
First and foremost, you need to provide for the basic needs of your family…
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)
For most retirees, this means providing for your spouse. But for younger couples, this means taking care of children as well, at least until they become adults themselves.
Second, beyond basic needs, I think this means that it's okay to provide for something beyond the basic needs of the child, grandchild, nephew or niece. Something that will really bless them, such as money for education, to pay off student loans, or to pay off a mortgage.
Third, it's possible that you will have enough money to provide for an inheritance large enough to cover both needs and wants. This is where we have to be careful. An inheritance that covers too many "wants and desires" may lead to poor stewardship and unhappiness, greed and a failure to trust in the Lord for provision. This is when it does more harm than good.
What about a large inheritance
If you plan to leave a potentially large inheritance to your children, that's great. But you need to be thoughtful and wise about it.
Generally speaking, the younger the inheritor is, the more likely a large inheritance will present a problem. Many estate planners say that a larger inheritance will be used more wisely if it is distributed over a longer time and at a later age. A large lump sum at one time may be unwise. Many younger children who receive a large inheritance at an early age spend it within 18 months. When asked where the inheritance went they may reply, "Well, I spent it on cars, boats, and vacations, and wasted the rest!"
So, consider transferring a large inheritance over a period of years rather than a lump sum, especially if the inheritor is young or perhaps older but lacking in areas of character or in good money management skills. A good plan might include a distribution of some principal, income for a period of years, and the second payout of deferred principal later on. This would require establishing some kind of trust.
A trust is a fiduciary arrangement that allows a third party, or trustee, to hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. Trusts can be arranged in many ways and can specify exactly how and when the assets pass to the beneficiaries. (Fidelity Investments)
Trusts are typically formed (but not necessarily funded) as part of your will, but they can be done separately and at any time. The larger and more complex your estate, the more likely you would benefit from a trust. (More on this in the next article.)
Your last act of stewardship
Most people probably don't think of applying stewardship principles to your decisions about what you leave behind on earth when you die – your legacy and possibly an inheritance for others. I would say that it's just as important to God how you distribute what's left of His property, as it is how you manage it while you are alive. You are just as much a steward of what you leave as what you managed while you were here. And remember, distributing what's left will be your last act of stewardship in this life.
In the next article, I will get into the practical aspects of creating a will and other directives.