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Separation of Church...and Estate

For many people, estate planning isn't just about financial assets and other practical concerns. It's also about honoring their religious beliefs and passing those values on to family members. That can be very tricky ground. My legal colleague, Lizette Sundvick, has offered the below commentary in reference to a good Wall Street Journal article on this topic.

Planning your estate may seem like a simple matter of deciding who gets your stuff when you're gone. What if you are a person of great faith and religious conviction? How does a person of faith plan for his or her estate when life (and especially life beyond) is so much more than mere "stuff"? The problem of mixing religion and estate planning - that is, the problem of doing it well - is taken up by theWall Street Journal in an article titled Joining Church and Estate. If your decisions during life are guided by your faith, then likely your estate decisions will be too. For example, end-of-life, disposition of remains and even charitable giving decisions are oftentimes determined by one's religious beliefs. These are personal decisions that directly impact you and collaterally impact others. However, it is an entirely different matter to make religiously-motivated decisions for others. Given the numerous alternative planning strategies and tools available to plan your estate, it is possible to make (or attempt to make) religious decisions for your heirs. This is where problems can arise. In the extreme, you can move beyond encouraging to requiring the observance of certain religious principles, rituals, or lifelong membership in the given religion to secure any inheritance. As the Wall Street Journal article illustrates, this is where problems can arise. In short, requiring heirs to uphold religious principles they do not share can work to undermine them. The article discusses some particularly poignant examples and real life court battles. It's worth a read and serious consideration when trying to strike that delicate balance of encouraging without alienating those whose beliefs may differ from your own. I stand ready to assist you in striking the delicate balance between church and estate. Please call me or email, and we'll find a time to meet.

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