Faith and Values in Estate Planning

October 16, 2013
Updated on October 16, 2020

For many Americans, passing along religious beliefs and values to the next generation is just as important, if not more so, as passing along financial wealth and tangible assets. Estate planning creates many opportunities to do this. Here is a brief discussion of some of these opportunities:

  • End-of-life care. In a healthcare power of attorney (called an advance directive in some states), you name someone to make medical decisions for you in the event you cannot make them yourself. You can select someone who shares your faith and values about end-of-life issues or someone who will honor your wishes. In either case, it is important to provide written instructions about things like organ donation, pain medication (if you want to remain conscious or be fully sedated at the end of life), hospice arrangements, and even avoiding care in a specific facility. You may want to be visited by a priest, rabbi, or other clergy member. Pregnant women may want to include their preference on medical decisions that would impact the mother and her unborn child.
  • Funeral and burial arrangements. Your faith may influence your views on burial, cremation, autopsy, and even embalming. It may also influence the kind of service you want (or do not want). Some people plan their funeral and include a list of people to notify, which can be helpful for a grieving family. Some even prepay for the funeral and burial plots to prevent their loved ones from overspending out of grief or guilt.
  • Charitable giving. With proper planning, even those with modest estates can make significant final distributions to their church or synagogue, university, hospital, or other favorite cause. Not only does this allow you to continue supporting your favorite charities after you are gone, it will let your family know that giving is important to you—and set an example for your children and other beneficiaries for their own charitable giving.
  • Distributions to children and grandchildren. Taking the time to plan how you will leave assets to your family lets them know how much you care about them, and is another way to convey your faith and values. For example, you can provide for the religious education of your children or grandchildren. If you have young children, you can select someone who shares your religious views to manage their inheritances. You can also provide a letter of instruction to their guardian with your views on the care and upbringing of your children.

If your children are older and you are not fond of a son- or daughter-in-law, your attorney can help you provide for your son or daughter in a way that will prevent your money from falling into the wrong hands. However, be careful about making an inheritance conditional or disinheriting a child or grandchild who marries outside of your faith or does not believe as you do. Trying to force someone to believe as you do may create discord in the family. The emotional scars on the family, especially if a bitter legal fight results, are probably not what you want for your loved ones.

Transferring your values to your family is best done over time by letting them see your charitable giving, how faith plays a role in your life, and the religious services that you attend. But it is never too late. Meet with an estate planning attorney to formalize your wishes. Talk to your family while you can, or write personal letters or make a video that they can keep and review long after you are gone. Explain what your faith and values mean to you and how they have helped you through the highs and lows of your life.