THE FIRST MORAL CONSIDERATION:
The “final collection” is your last one, the distribution of your estate upon your passing. I have never come across an ecclesiastical directive about the spiritual side wills and bequests to charity, but I have always assumed that the same principles of tithing and charitable gifts that apply to the living also apply to the dead. After all, it is the living—with appropriate professional assistance, hopefully—who write wills and trust that their intentions will be upheld in civil court of law. But let’s start with a basic moral consideration, leaving a properly registered will.
For practical purposes, everyone already has a will. If you did not write and swear out your own before you die, then you are using your state’s template as the default. Drawing from my own professional and personal experience and reviewing recent literature on the subject, it strikes me that failure to tend to a personal will can be a serious moral breech in the religious sense. There are a great many scenarios that unfold when one dies intestate, and none of them are good. At the very least, the immediate blood or civilly registered legal survivors [e.g. by marriage or adoption] will need to retain counsel to sort out the division of assets. States have various laws about who may present themselves to the court to serve as the executor and overseer of the survivors’ share of the estate. I think we have all lived long enough and watched enough “Law and Order” to know about the family strife that results from money.
The legal designation of an executor is probably as important as the writing of the will itself. In cases without wills, courts have a pecking order for appointing an executor, with the discretion to choose, for example, whom it believes to be the most competent member of a family of siblings; the law does not require the automatic appointment of the oldest sibling. That can be a shock and a further disruption of the family. What happens more frequently than you think is that the oldest sibling has serious substance abuse issues, a criminal history, failed businesses, etc., which are legal impediments to exercising executorship in many states.
Morally speaking, basic Christian charity demands of my generation that we leave our estates in the simplest possible condition for our families to deal with after our deaths. When our son was killed suddenly years ago, we used the occasion to engage with an estate attorney practice for ourselves, and we soon had legally drawn directives for every possible end-of-life contingency. The entire range of paperwork came to a full loose-leaf binder which I jokingly called “the atomic football” after the briefcase of national launch codes that always accompanies the president of the United States. When, for example, do you want your plugs pulled in the critical care unit? Who makes that decision? It is all in the book, or now in the cloud, ready for the attorney to advise our executors should it come to that.
A few more ethical points: even when a will is properly executed, the beneficiaries receive the liabilities as well as the assets of the estate. This is above and beyond federal and state inheritance taxes. There are an infinite number of scenarios where survivors inherit costly obligations. If your parents’ house has had no improvements since Eisenhauer was president, the cost of bringing it up to code, let alone prepping it for resale, can be significant. [Why do the “Property Brothers” avoid old houses?] Just for the heck of it, I looked up the two-story house I grew up in during the 1950’s and discovered that it sold last month for $4000. If my family still owned the house, we would be upside down, so to speak. I am familiar with a case where a man left his business to his children when the company was millions of dollars in debt. Again, there would seem to be a moral issue involved with tying up estate responsibilities to the best of one’s abilities while still alive and competent, lest they be passed along to the next generation.
On a real but more humorous note, there comes a time when we older folks admit that the younger generation is not interested in our “stuff.” The term “downsizing” gets tossed about a lot, but at the end of your day your kids are going to call the St. Vincent de Paul van to haul off your treasures. The kind thing is to do that yourself before you leave the earth. Estate planners advise that precious items be appraised; most of the time our “collectibles” are simply collecting space. I have learned that the hard way with books and sports memorabilia. There are spiritual blessings to simplicity, and your family will quietly thank you in their prayers when that day comes.
THE SECOND MORAL CONSIDERATION
This leaves us with the question of charitable giving when disposing of an estate. The issue of percentage is a personal one; the pastoral presumption would suggest an amount proportionate to the degree of passion one has had for the Church and special charities throughout one’s lifetime, and the wish that such ministries continue long into the future. I would be lying if I denied that events in the Catholic Church over the past twenty years have changed the playing field. The needs of the Gospel mission weigh heavily upon us all but it suffices to say that a donor need exercise due diligence in the designation of charitable giving, during one’s life and beyond in the instrument of a legal will. (One need only look to last week’s fiasco involving Bishop Bransfield in West Virginia as testimony for the need to donate cautiously.)
Many church institutions—parishes, schools, etc.—have closed their doors over the past several decades for a multitude of reasons, including fewer priests, abuse settlement costs, and declining participation. Catholics have willed money to the endowments of these institutions. If you are inclined to leave money to scholarship endowment, for example, for your local Catholic school, it is wise to understand how the diocese and/or board of directors will use your gift if the institution closes or is merged. You can have your attorney, after conversation with the diocesan development office, arrange for your gift to be redirected to another diocesan-wide endowment for Catholic schools, if such an instrument exists. You can designate your gift as a “restricted bequest,” meaning that the Catholic diocese or institution must use the money as the donor instructs, rather than assign it to "general operations."
Making out a will is a spiritual exercise, no matter how small or how large the bequest. It requires the donor to concretely address what he or she believes are the most critical needs of the Church and of society at large. It is easy to overlook some of the ministries which continue to enrich the Faith: the religious orders that educated us [at considerable discount], Catholic health care facilities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities outreach in one’s own diocese, missions [particularly those sponsored by one’s own diocese], Catholic journalism, and the list goes on. I am citing Catholic institutions, but one can look beyond denominational headings to such worthy causes as Amnesty International.
My passion over many years has been the theological formation of catechists, and I am currently looking for a way to set up a postmortem gift or endowment. This is easier said than done, as my diocese’s training program has been in disarray for a few years now and I am looking for an agency of the diocese that would carry out my wishes. My attorney asked for a little more “meat on the bones” for this item back twenty years ago, and I better get cracking if I am serious about this.
Gift-giving contains a big element of faith. A donor can control the amount, but once the gift is made, there are no guarantees the dollars will do exactly what you hope they will. The needs and missions of the Church change over time; the object of your charity may cease to exist, like the Catholic girls’ high school in my family’s current place of residence. The gift may be mismanaged or even fraudulently used, as in the case of the West Virginia bishop cited above.
Years ago, I had a friend in the chancery, the director of development. When soliciting large gifts from reluctant donors was tough, he would remind me: “Tell your people that their gift is to God; if you mismanage it, you the pastor will burn in hell for all eternity.” He was right: the gift is to God, and the giver is blessed. Woe to those who poison the trust and abuse the gift.
I have not addressed a large number of ancillary considerations including personal competence and aging, taxes, trust arrangements [a married couple can form a revocable trust which bypasses the need for probate when one spouse dies], nor such things as estate taxes, which vary from state to state, nursing home insurance, etc. I have simply offered moral considerations in this post, not legal advice. Please retain your own legal counsel in planning for your own circumstances.