For many reasons, people are making a greater effort to make sure that their estate plan has an effect on both their own family, and a variety of charities. The New York Times recently ran a piece entitled In Estate Planning, Family Isn’t Always First by Caitlin Kelly that said as much. While many still aren’t making an effort to put together estate plans for the efficient administration of asset transfer at death, many, many more are at a higher rate than in years past.
It is mere speculation to think that charities have done a better job educating the populace about the benefits of giving to their organization during and after the recession. Or, perhaps the advent of tools like Donor Advised Funds such as those offered by Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Vanguard, have changed the giving landscape. Regardless, clients seem to be interested in either creating a legacy or benefiting many of the same organizations they worked with closely during life, through their estate plan.
Both the client and the estate planner should have an in depth discussion about who the client is ultimately trying to benefit. It is critically important for the estate planner to make a proper determination about the ultimate beneficiary of the client’s estate plan. This is true if the client has a long history of giving to a particular organization, or even if the client decides that an organization is worthy of receiving their assets at death, but has never directly given to that organization.
For the sake of explanation, take this example. If a client indicates that he or she wishes to benefit the United Way, problems could arise if the estate plan merely transfers assets at death to “United Way.” Did the client intend to benefit the global organization, or a local chapter of the United Way? While the answer to this question might seem obvious if the client had a long history of involvement with her local chapter of the United Way organization, it may not be obvious if she deemed them to have a worthwhile purpose that she planned to benefit with a bequest from her estate, even though she did not benefit the organization during life.
A general goal of estate planning is to inject efficiencies into the process of asset distribution at death. Lack of clarity regarding charitable intent can make estate administration grossly inefficient. If the Executor of the estate, or Trustee of the client’s Trust is unsure of the exact beneficiary of the estate, he or she may have to seek guidance to properly abide by their fiduciary duty under the law to properly administer the estate. That fiduciary duty could result in request for Court interpretation of the Last Will or Trust, an inefficient process, to say the least. The Court process could be both time consuming, and costly to all involved.
It is certainly possible to reduce the likelihood of confusion during estate planning. A good estate plan drafter should do some homework. Information from the client should be gathered to find out more about the organization that is to be the recipient of the client’s estate distribution. There are times when the organization may simply not be a viable recipient of the estate bequest. While many charitable organizations do great things, some of them are tenuously in existence, at best. Perhaps one individual effectively runs the charity and if something happened to that person, the entity would shut down. If this is the case, the estate planner should draft accordingly to allow the Trustee some flexibility. Perhaps the Trustee distributes assets to an alternative organization in existence at death. Or the bequest lapses if the organization no longer exists. All of this information can be included in the plan.
To prevent the type of confusion illustrated above in the United Way example, the estate planner should clarify the client’s wishes and investigate the organizational structure of each charity. It could be that there is one umbrella organization where all funds are directed, but noted as benefitting a particular geographical division of the organization. Some entities are really an amalgam of multiple regional charities that are loosely held together and merely market together without having a structural entity controlling them.
Upon investigation, the estate planner should be able to learn how to properly draft the charitable bequest. That bequest should include the proper legal name of the entity and its Federal Tax Identification number. It may be helpful to the Executor or Trustee to also include a current address and phone number in the beneficiary designation. The planner should also include directions regarding what happens if the organization either no longer exists or if it has been acquired or absorbed into a successor organization. All of these events are very possible, especially when the plan preparation is removed by many years from the date of death.
If you have questions about how you can properly plan for charitable distributions at death, or any other estate planning questions, please contact our office.