Adapting Estate Planning to Religious and Ethical Values

reliestphotoMany of our readers are about to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  We wish those who observe a happy and healthy new year.  At this time of year, those of the Jewish faith tend to reflect upon their acts during the past year and to set goals for improvements in the following year.  Attorneys can provide the opportunity for one’s religious, moral and ethical values to be reflected in a final legacy, such as a Will or Trust.   This post will discuss the means by which your attorney will insure that your values are properly contained within your estate documents.

Primarily, we suggest that you meet with a skilled professional , who is prepared to discuss your ethical values.  The meeting should not only address the standard discussion of who should serve as fiduciaries (those named in the Will to act on behalf of the estate such as executors, trustees and guardians) and who should inherit your assets.  For instance, a couple with minor children typically needs to determine who will serve as guardians to raise their children if they pass away.  If religion is important to such a couple, they may want to appoint someone of the same religious background who will be instructed to continue the religious instruction and ritual observance to which the children have been accustomed.  It is possible that a separate fiduciary may need to be named to handle financial matters for the children when a religiously sensitive guardian has been selected.

Discussions should be undertaken as to the distribution of assets.  Authorizing a trust to distribute assets for religious education and travel, in addition to the standard education expenses, may be appropriate.  Charitable matters should also be considered.  If charitable giving is an important value to the client, we discuss the means by which charitable giving can be accomplished.  Gifts made during lifetime typically have less significant tax consequences and the donor may be recognized personally for the contribution.  However, the donor may need the assets during her lifetime and would rather part with them at a later time.  Charitable trusts can also be established if appropriate.  Our firm commonly coordinates with various organizations that are prepared to assist in the establishment of such charitable trusts.

In addition, a charitable bequest can be written into your Will.  Such a provision may state that a particular amount of money or percentage of your estate will be delivered to a particular charity or organization that is consistent with one’s faith and ethical values.  Careful drafting will prevent certain common pitfalls in this well-meaning approach.  For instance, naming the charity precisely is important.  Our attorneys typically contact the organization to determine their proper legal name.  It is not unusual for a charity to request that the bequest be made for general purposes, rather than a specific purpose, in case the specific purpose is eliminated before the donor passes away.  Also, it should be noted that if a charitable bequest is contained in the Will, that the Charity Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office needs to appear in the probate proceeding, which may cause additional expense and delay to the estate beneficiaries.

Estate executors generally have broad authority to make investment decisions on behalf of the estate.  Stocks may be readily traded so long as a reasonably prudent investor would make similar decisions without liability to the fiduciary.  However, a “socially oriented” person may wish to place more restrictions on the executor, potentially precluding investments in tobacco and oil companies.  Likewise, documents may be drafted in such a manner that interest charges are avoided, so as to be consistent with one’s values.

End of life decisions and their possible integration into legal documents inherently touch upon religious and moral values.  When meeting with your attorney to prepare your Will, you should expect that a discussion of Living Wills and Health Care Proxies will arise.  A Living Will contains a general direction for one’s preferences.  A Health Care Proxy identifies a particular person to make such decisions for you, as well as identifies one’s preferences.  If a person wishes for artificial hydration and nutrition to be withheld or withdrawn if there is no hope for recovery, these documents are appropriate for the expression of such wishes.  In our experience, most people know their preferences very readily.  If there is any hesitation, we suggest that these documents not be included in one’s estate plan.  We are also prepared to customize such documents to be consistent with the client’s wishes.

Our attorneys integrate the religious and moral sensitivities of our clients in the drafting of estate planning documents.  We look forward to meeting you in an effort to assist you in this matter.