An Estate Plan Can Highlight Religious Values… Within Limits

All parents hope to pass their values onto their children; and of the many values they hope to pass on religion and spirituality often tops the list. In some cases, religious values are so important to a parent that they will even include mention of these values in their estate plan. Our firm strongly believes that an estate plan is not just about money, but about leaving a legacy, and we often encourage our clients to include mention of their values—religious or otherwise.

Formalizing a legacy of values is not always as easy as leaving a financial legacy, however; and as this recent article in the Wall Street Journal mentions, there is a limit to how far a parent or grandparent can go in dictating religious values to their heirs. The article points out 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 and spark extended, costly legal battles, all while failing to have any impact on the heirs’ beliefs.”

One of the most common value-imposing strategies used by parents in estate planning is to require that children marry within a certain faith in order to receive their inheritance. This strategy has worked in some instances, for example, “in a 2009 case that was closely watched by estate planners, the Illinois Supreme Court—overturning the decisions of lower courts—unanimously ruled that a Jewish man, Max Feinberg, and his wife, Erla, could legally cut off their grandchildren who chose to marry outside of the Jewish religion.”

This strategy is often hurtful, however, and quite frequently expensively controversial, causing some heirs to challenge the will or trust; a process which can take many years and thousands of dollars to resolve. It is often better to explore other options as far as passing on values. “One increasingly common alternative to strict provisions that may penalize certain heirs is to leave money for children and grandchildren in a trust and 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.”

A trusted and sensitive estate planner can talk to you about what is important to you and your family, and help you choose the best and most respectful way to pass on your wealth and your values.

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