Prince Did Not Leave a Will: What the Church Can Learn

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Yesterday, TMZ reported that international superstar Prince did not leave a Last Will & Testament will when he died last Thursday. Accordingly, Prince’s sister Tyka filed legal documents to open a probate case so that a Minnesota judge could appoint someone to administer Prince’s estate.

Prince is not alone. According to LegalZoom, more than 50% of American adults do not have a will or estate plan. Even while an increased number of people have completed end-of-life documents such as medical directives, the number of people completing wills remain disturbingly low. The disparity is greatest among minorities. When a person dies without a will (the legal term is “intestate”), Forbes reports,”[T]here’s no guarantee who will inherit your assets.” The court system determines what happens with the estate.

Although Giving USA reports that houses of worship receive 32% of all charitable donations from the living, Gregg Pope estimates that only 5% of bequests go to religion. Note the extreme disconnect. This means that a church member can faithfully support your ministry for his or her entire life, but when he or she passes away the church is not remembered in the will. Consider this thought experiment. How many church members have died in your congregation in the past year? How many of them remembered the church in their estate plan?

In his book Gift of a Lifetime, Pope explains two of the main reasons why people do not remember churches in their wills. First, many congregations have not asked for bequests or included estate planning as an important part of the church’s ministry. When researchers inquire why people give, one of the most common and often cited responses is, “I gave because someone asked me.”As James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.” Be aware that other nonprofits in your community are asking. Colleges, universities, libraries, etc. are asking your church members to support their mission through their estate plan. What is your congregation doing to ask its members if they would be willing to give a legacy?

Second, Pope says, “Most Christians think their local churches lack the necessary vision to warrant a bequest.” Does your church have a vision for the future? Is it compelling enough to ask someone to support it through their estate plan? In their 2001 report, The U.S National Committee on Planned Giving found that the two most commonly cited reasons people gave for including an nonprofit in their will were 1) A desire to support the given charity (97%), and 2) the ultimate use of the gift (87%).  What is your church’s vision for the future?

If you would like more information about estate planning, consult with your denominational office to see if they can recommend a foundation that can work with your congregation to establish or improve your church’s estate planning ministry.

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Thad Austin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a PhD candidate at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and William and Edie Enright Fellow at The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Thad also serves as Editor of the Church Leader Collective for Seedbed. Thad served as Executive Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In his free time, Thad loves to travel (41 countries and all 50 states, thus far), hike (has hiked the 1,100 miles between Pennsylvania and Georgia), sail, and spend time with friends.

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