For many, passing along religious beliefs and values to the next generation is just as important as passing along financial wealth and tangible assets. Estate planning creates many opportunities to do this, including:
* End-of-Life Care. A health care power of attorney (Advance Directive in some states) lets you name someone to make medical decisions for you in the event you cannot make them yourself. This can be someone who shares your faith and values about end-of-life issues or someone who will honor your wishes. In either case, it is a good idea to provide written instructions about things like organ donation, pain medication (some may want to remain conscious at the end of life), hospice arrangements, even avoiding care in a specific facility. A visit by a priest, rabbi or other member of clergy may be desired. Pregnant women may want to include their preference on medical decisions that would impact the mother and her unborn child.
The days of having a life-long treating physician who visits you at the hospital are long gone. Now, you are as likely to be assigned to a hospitalist who’s at the end of a 20-hour shift when you come into the Emergency Room on a gurney. A simple card in your wallet, used by the hospital to retrieve an electronic copy of your health-care documents goes a long way to having your wishes honored at a time when you are most vulnerable.
* Funeral and Burial Arrangements. Faith can influence views on burial, cremation, autopsy, even embalming. Faith may also influence certain details in a funeral or memorial service. Some people pre-plan their services and include a list of people to notify (which can be helpful for a grieving family). Some even pre-pay for the funeral and burial plots to prevent their loved ones from overspending out of grief and/or guilt. Keeping a record of those decision separate from your Will is important, since the Will usually isn’t addressed until a few days following the funeral.
* Charitable Giving. Giving to others who are less fortunate is common among people of all faiths. Making final distributions to a church or synagogue, university, hospital and other favorite causes will convey the value of charitable giving to family members.
* Distributions to Children and Grandchildren. Taking the time to plan how assets are left to family members lets them know how much they are loved, and is another way to convey faith values. For example, providing for the religious education of children and/or grandchildren speaks volumes. Parents of young children can select someone who shares their religious views to manage the inheritance. A letter of instruction to the guardian can include views on the care and upbringing of young children, which are often influenced by faith.
If the children are older and a son- or daughter-in-law is not fully trusted, an attorney can assist with providing for a son or daughter in a way that will prevent an inheritance from falling into the wrong hands. However, making an inheritance conditional or disinheriting a child or grandchild who marries outside the faith or doesn’t share their parent’s faith can backfire.
We cannot really force someone to believe as we do, and trying to do so by withholding an inheritance will only create discord in the family and may not be recognized. The emotional scars on the family, especially if a bitter legal fight results, are probably not what parents want for their family. It takes both wisdom and legal knowledge to navigate the competing goals of passing the inheritance to those who are of same or similar faith and avoiding family conflict.
Transferring faith and values to family members is best done over time, by letting them see your faith at work in your life, taking them to religious services, and letting them see you being charitable. But it’s never too late. Talk to your family while you can. Explain what your faith means to you and how it has helped you through difficult moments in your life. You can also write personal letters or make a video that they can keep and review long after you are gone, but it is important that you don’t create confusion regarding your estate by what you write or record.