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Developing an Estate Plan that Encourages Observation of A Decedent’s Spiritual Beliefs

Weber Law May 6, 2015

Estate planning serves many functions, such as establishing a plan for legacy succession and preserving personal dignity regarding end of life medical decisions.  One aspect of estate planning that receives less attention involves the use of an estate plan to promote the continued observance of religious beliefs and/or personal value.  Admittedly, financial planning and asset succession is the focus of most estate plans, but passing on religious values and personal belief systems also is an important goal of many individuals constructing an estate plan.

The goal of passing on faith based values to heirs and loved ones often guides estate planning decisions.  Traditional religious values can impact decisions regarding the distribution of assets between loved ones and charities, wishes regarding extraordinary medical measures, appointment of guardians for minor children, and funeral/burial/cremation arrangements.  Most families vary dramatically in terms of their religious values and commitment to a spiritual lifestyle.  Therefore, passionate disputes can arise in the wake of a decedent’s death the proper role and importance of religious values in the administration of an estate.  While estate plans can be used to encourage children, grandchildren, and other loved ones to carry on faith based traditions and values, careful planning might reduce conflict and animosity, which can decimate the bonds between surviving family members.

Requirement of Marrying within Family Religion

The use of estate planning tools to perpetuate personal and religious values can be complicated because overly restrictive requirements might not be enforced by a judge.  The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on a court battle that involved the impact of faith based conditions on legacy succession.  Max Feinberg, who was Jewish, created a trust that made his five grandchildren beneficiaries of a trust once his surviving spouse passed away.  However, the terms of the trust imposed a requirement that the grandchild marry within the Jewish faith, or his or her share of the trust property would pass to the parents’ of the beneficiary.  The trust did permit an exception to marrying outside the Jewish religion provided the non-Jewish spouse converted to Judaism within one year of marriage.  This condition was based on the strong cultural value of perpetuating the Jewish faith by marrying within the religion.

When Mr. Feinberg passed away, one of his grandchildren received $250,000 from the trust.  However, the other four grandchildren who all married outside the faith received nothing.  Tenacious litigation was initiated by the disinherited grandkids.  The case reached the Illinois Supreme Court, which overturned the lower courts in recognizing the right of the decedent to disinherit his grandkids under these circumstances.  Courts in other states also have upheld such conditions provided they were not crafted in a way to encourage divorce.  Many estate planning professionals recommend efforts during life to educate loved ones and encourage observance of faith based traditions and values to avoid harsh feelings, animosity, and costly litigation of a will or trust.  Language in a will can be one of the least effective ways to impact the behavior and values of descendants.  Religious school, church attendance, and the modeling of spiritual practices in the home constitute a more effective way of promoting inheritance of a decedent’s religious legacy.

Facilitating Ability of Trustee to Honor a Decedent’s Faith Based Values

If an individual urgently wants to use an estate plan to promote personal and spiritual values, a more flexible trust arrangement can provide a better strategy.  Instead of using a trust with strict provisions that penalize non-compliance, a decedent can leave assets in a trust and grant discretion to the trustee.  The trustee can be given broader discretions to consider relevant criteria when making decisions.  While this approach provides criteria to guide the distribution of a decedent’s legacy, the trustee has some flexibility to consider special circumstances that a decedent might not have foreseen when creating a will or trust.  The trustee also will be in a position to weigh the impact of each situation on distribution of the estate assets.

Because the trustee will play a major role in the lives of the beneficiaries in this scenario, the trustee should be someone that the creator believes will make decisions consistent with the decedent’s wishes guided by an understanding of relevant values and religious principles.  If the trustee does not have a thorough understanding of the religious tenants and practices relevant to the decedent, the trust agreement could direct the trustee to consult with a member of the clergy.  A member of the clergy might even be consulted during the process of preparing estate documents regarding matters like burial practices, funeral observances, end-of-life medical decisions, and other relevant issues.

If you have estate planning questions about encouraging loved ones to respect and observe your personal and religious values, we welcome the opportunity to talk to you and answer your questions.  We invite you to call the Kansas Estate Planning Attorney at the Weber Law Office, P.A. or to submit an inquiry form through this website to schedule your initial consultation.