My question relates to estate planning. My wife and I have done fairly well — we’re not wealthy but we’re comfortable and debt-free — and we’re not sure how much we should put aside for our children’s inheritance.
Remember that the greatest inheritance you can pass on to your children is love for their faith and family. Anyone who has these is truly rich. While there is no obligation to pass on a physical inheritance, St. Paul expresses an important principle when he says, “For children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2 Corinthians 12:14). In addition, Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.”
So in general, we can say it’s a good thing for parents to provide an inheritance.
On the other hand, in Proverbs 20:21, we read, “An inheritance gotten hastily in the beginning will in the end not be blessed.” Many young people today are receiving wealth that they aren’t equipped to handle — to their detriment. How can we balance the good of passing on an inheritance, while minimizing the chance that it will be misused or harmful to the recipient?
One idea is to make sure your children know what’s important to you through the design of your estate plan. Write a letter to them that shares your hopes and dreams. Explain that the resources being passed along are gifts from the Lord that are now being entrusted to their stewardship. Express your desire that the resources be used for the betterment of their families, and for doing broader good in society. Provide an example of generosity to your children by including gifts to charitable organizations as part of your estate legacy.
When determining how to handle an inheritance, remember that money and possessions have a way of creating divisions between people (Genesis 13:5-11; Luke 15:11-31).
Will you pass on your inheritance in equal shares even if some of your children have chosen priorities in life with which you disagree?
At first glance, common sense would seem to argue you shouldn’t. Yet, choosing to leave someone out of an inheritance, or to give different amounts, can easily create long-term divisions between family members. And remember, the prodigal son eventually returned to his father. Clearly there may be situations where prudence requires an uneven allocation — as, for example, when there is a child with special needs.
If the situation allows, give your children the ability to manage a portion of their inheritance through gifts or other means while you are alive. This will provide a sense as to the choices they are making and can be factored into final estate plans. Another common approach is to spread inheritance gifts over time. For example, you might pass on one-third of the inheritance at ages 30, 35 and 40. While not a guarantee that an inheritance will be used well, this approach does allow the natural maturing process to occur, and avoids everything being squandered in the younger years.
Many people haven’t taken time to think these issues through. Many parents don’t even have a basic will in place, let alone more complete estate plans. Give yourself credit just for asking the question. Then make sure you don’t leave your children exposed and your estate in chaos.
Visit with a professional who can guide you with the development of an estate plan that honors God and your family. God love you.
Phil Lenahan is
president of Veritas