For many people, estate planning isn’t just about financial assets and other practical concerns. It’s also about honoring your religious beliefs and passing those values on to family members.
Being a person of a mixed marriage, I can tell you first-hand that this can be very tricky ground.
Religious beliefs can affect a wide range of decisions, from end-of-life health care and organ donations, to funeral, burial or cremation arrangements, to the distribution of assets among heirs and charitable bequests.
Any of those issues can be a source of passionate disagreement within a family, especially one with varying degrees of religious devotion. So, as hard as it is, addressing them ahead of time, with legal documentation, can help quiet disputes down the road.
Of course, it isn’t always that simple. I must caution you that being too restrictive in an estate plan in an effort to pass on religious values — say, disinheriting children who marry outside the faith — can create divisions within a family. It can even spark extended, costly legal battles, all while failing to have any impact on the heirs’ beliefs. Hopefully there are better ways to leave a spiritual legacy.
The legal and emotional complexities of faith-based estate planning may be most evident in the wish of some parents for their heirs to marry within their faith. Many courts have upheld Wills that give to beneficiaries that marry only within their faith. Other courts have upheld such marriage provisions, as long as they aren’t found to encourage divorce, but they are still ripe for legal challenges by angry heirs.
The better way to leave your spiritual legacy is to make an effort to impart those values during your lifetime, instead of after death through an estate plan. That means talking openly with your family about your faith and educating children and grandchildren about deeply held moral values, usually with the help of schools or religious institutions. Probably one of the least effective ways to affect the behaviors of your descendants is to put a clause in your Will.
Another alternative to strict provisions in a Will that may penalize certain heirs is to leave money for children and grandchildren in a trust. You can then give the trustee discretion to make distributions based on broader criteria that you set out when creating the trust. That way you provide guidance on how you would like your money to be distributed, but you leave some leeway for the trustee to consider special circumstances that you may not have anticipated and to weigh the consequences of each decision on distributions.
This approach, of course, requires careful thought in designating a trustee. This really isn’t something out of the ordinary, as you should always give careful thought when choosing people for any fiduciary position. In all cases, choosing a trustee, executor or guardian — people who may play a big role in the lives of your heirs — who share your religious values, is one good way to help ensure that those values outlive you.
As with passing on your inheritance, if you have deeply held convictions about end-of-life care and burial decisions, spell them out as specifically as possible in estate documents to minimize potential controversy. And, on the opposite end, if you are firmly against religious observances when it comes to your end-of-life care or other estate plans, you should specifically state that as well to prevent feuding over your arrangements.
Trying to bring up your children and grandchildren with your values is always the way to go. But in many cases that’s not possible. In any case, you need to write down your wishes in all your planning documents and let people know your wishes so there are no surprises later.