The Will Talk (Part 1)

In a recent post, I mentioned the “will talk.” Here are the details (in a multi-part blog post) about an important development tool and topic of conversation with which every developer needs to be conversant and comfortable. Conversations about wills are not just for planned giving experts or staff, whatever their titles (and there are several): gift planner, deferred gift planning officer, planned giving director, to list a few. They don’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable, either; in fact, they shouldn’t be.

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 the would-be donor’s well-being and future. The development professional can actually provide a service that is worthwhile and helpful. Having tools and resources readily available can establish credibility as well as enabling the would-be donor to undertake a project without hassle and, as appropriate, in a DIY manner, which will be appreciated. Besides establishing credibility, the “Will Talk” can help establish trust so important to biggerr and often later “asks.”

When should a developer discuss face-to-face inclusion of his or her organization in a will with potential donors? Probably sooner than the developer might think; by the time most potential donors are in their early 40s is not too soon. 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 one is 48. In most cases before 40, electronic promotion and as-needed one-on-one advice coupled with the posting of easily accessible sample bequest language is usually sufficient; having (and promoting) this information online is a minimum requirement for non-profits serious about receiving gifts through bequests usually made in wills. (Bequests can also be made through trusts or other vehicles, to be discussed in a future post. Another easy way to support an organization is through POD (Pay on Death) and TOD (Transfer on Death) provisions, also to be discussed in a future post.)

Once a charity is in a will, there is only about a 3% chance it will be deleted. Though older people may sometimes change a will, they may not, and 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 added later. Getting a would-be donor to rethink estate planning decisions is a lot harder than being part of original thoughts and intentions. As a development officer, go for early inclusion. An organization should have a stewardship plan in place to help prevent elimination of it from wills and/or other aspects of estate plans. 

Why should anyone have a will? A lot of people don’t, as though not having one is going to keep them from dying. Wrong. Everyone is going to die; “no one is getting out of here alive.” Dying without a will is just going to make it harder on a person’s survivors. So, do the right thing: take time to create a will.

There are lots of reasons to have a will, even if a person doesn’t 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. A person can have a list of personal property attached to their will and can change it without changing the will (in legalese, adding a codicil to it). Disposal of personal possessions can be easy.

If anyone beside a spouse or blood relative is going to inherit anything, it has to be passed via an estate plan. For most things, this means in 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. (And, 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 the parents won’t be around to insist or appoint someone else.)

In cases where a person dies without a will, the tendency is to assume everything goes to a surviving spouse. Dangerous assumption; laws can and often do change. Changes can be overlooked. Ignorance of the law doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply. 

What if a surviving spouse gets a new partner and then dies without a will? Will the first partner be happy that the family farm, for instance, goes to the new spouse? Taking time now to define possession and ownership, e.g., with life estates, may obviate events down the line.

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, doing a rational task is not always “top-of-mind.” And, many surviving spouses, often aged and even sick, die soon after a deceased 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 them 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), cost doesn’t have to prevent creation of a will. While paying an attorney to draft or review a will is wise, there are forms one can purchase at little cost in a store or online; there are even free ones. Many charities will post sample language on their Web sites. Dare I say it: a will can 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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