The Will Talk (Part 1)

In a recent post, I mentioned the “will talk.” Here are the details (in a two-part blog post) about an important development tool and topic of conversation with which every developer should be conversant and comfortable. Conversations about wills are not just for planned giving experts or staff, whatever their titles (and there are several): gift planners, deferred gift planning officer, planned giving director, to list a few. In addition to being a good opener for the “serious” part of a conversation with a would-be donor, the “will talk” is a way for the developer to demonstrate that his or her concern goes beyond money and support to encompass concern for the would-be donor. The development professional can actually provide a service that can be worthwhile, essential, and helpful to the would-be donor. Having tools and resources readily available can establish credibility as well as enabling the would-be donor to undertake a project in a DIY manner, which will be appreciated.

When should you discuss face-to-face the inclusion of your organization in a will with potential donors? (Let’s back up to say that you should talk with would-be and existing donors about a bequest to your organization.) Probably sooner than you think; by the time a would-be donor is in his or her early forties is not too soon. Certainly, the “idea” of estate planning should be mentioned soon after (but not in the same conversation, unless the donor brings it up thanking the donor for a gift or commitment, including an annual gift that captures the attention of the stewardship director and/or president (if your organization has a director of stewardship , the gift threshold for a thank you from him or her should be different from (lower than) that of the president.) Overlooking the approximately 80% of people who die without a will, the average age at which a will is created is 45, and the average age at which a charity is named in a will is 48. Before 40, electronic promotion and as-needed advice coupled with the posting of easily accessible sample bequest language is usually sufficient and a minimum requirement for non-profits serious about gifts through bequests usually made in wills. (Bequests can also be made through trusts or other vehicles, to be discussed in a future post, such as POD (Pay on Death) and TOD (Transfer on Death) provisions.)

            Once a charity is in a will, there is only a small (3%) chance it will be deleted. Though older people may change a will, it is much more difficult for a charity to be added as a beneficiary later. Getting in a will early (when it is created or soon after) is much easier than being inserted later. Getting a would-be donor to rethink decisions is a lot harder than being part of original thoughts and intentions. As a development officer, go for early inclusion. Have a stewardship plan in place to help prevent elimination of your charity from a will.  

             Why should anyone have a will? A lot of people don’t, as though not having one is going to keep folks from dying. Wrong. Everyone is going to die. Dying without a will is just going to make it harder on one’s survivors. So, do the right thing: take time to create a will while you’re alive..

            There are lots of reasons to have a will, even if a person does not have a lot of money or things. Some of those “things,” btw, probably have sentimental value. Survivors might fight over them and resent each other because of the conflict, regardless the outcome. Don’t let them; obviate fights by defining who gets what before “you” go. (I’ll use a personal pronoun to denote the would-be donor. None of us are getting out of here alive.) You can have a list of personal property attached to your will and can change it as time goes by without changing your will (in legalese, adding a codicil to it). Disposal of personal possessions can be easy.

            If anyone beside your spouse or blood relatives is going to inherit anything, it has to be passed via an estate plan. For most things, this means in a will. (There are some important exceptions, and other things that can be passed outside a will.) 

            “But I’m young and married. Everything goes to my spouse, so I don’t need a will,” your would-be donor says. Wrong again! If he or she has minor children, they definitely need to say who their children’s guardian will be if, god forbid, they and their spouse die in a common accident. Unfortunately, it happens; not having a will is not going to prevent a catastrophic accident. (The guardian needs to be talked with first and has to agree to serve if needed; don’t spring this task on someone, they may decline and then the parents won’t be around to insist or appoint someone else.)

            And, there is always the unpleasant possibility that a spouse will pre-decease the grantor/would-be donor. (“I’ll rewrite my will if that happens,” your would-be donor says. Great, but that isn’t always realistic; paralyzed by grief, let alone aged and ill-health (realistic possibilities) doing a rational task is not always “top-of-mind.” And, many surviving spouses, often aged and even sick, die soon after their partner.)

            “I don’t have the money,” a would-be donor may object. (“So, I want to saddle my survivors with attorney’s fees or leave the survivors to deal with issues they won’t or can’t take to an attorney,” is what the development officer’s would-be donor is actually saying.) Beside the obvious selfishness in this statement (whether said or silently thought), this does not have to be true. While paying an attorney to draft or review a will is wise, there are lots of will forms one can purchase at little cost in a store or online; there are even free forms. Many charities will post sample language on their Web sites. A person can save a lot of attorney time and costs by inventorying what they have and to whom it should go. Dare I say it: a will now does not have to be perfect and can always be “upgraded” later.


About marklofstrom

Baby-boomer aged guy who's a lawyer/fundraiser with colorful experiences, solid background, great education and more. Gay and in a relationship with a past and a future, on the go.
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