It's only human to want to leave something behind us when we go. Something that will benefit others. And...although we might never admit it...maybe prompt people to remember us favorably.
Perhaps the desire to leave a legacy is the reason so many successful people leave significant amounts of money to their favorite charities. But whatever the reason, leaving money to a charity is a good thing for the charity, society at large and, when done correctly, the donor.
The cynical among us will, of course, argue that the whole reason for leaving money to charities is to avoid taxes. Statistics would suggest otherwise.
In 2010, when the federal estate tax was lifted for a year, charitable donations actually rose...16.9% according to the Giving USA Foundation.
Clearly, people leave money to charities for reasons beyond tax savings. Almost everyone has a cause that is near and dear to their hearts - as evidenced by the fact that 95.4% of all American households give to charity with over $358 billion being given in 2014.1 It's only natural they would want to remember these same charities in their wills.
But is a will the best way to do it? While most financial planners would say that almost everyone of a certain age and with certain responsibilities should have one, they'll also tell you there are better ways to pass along money to a charity.
There are a number of problems with wills. For one, wills must go through the time-consuming and sometimes costly process of probate. For another, wills can – and often are – contested by family members who feel they weren't treated fairly by the deceased.
For an alternative to a will, you might consider taking out an insurance policy with the charity as the beneficiary. That way, the money is paid directly to the charity ... battles among family members are avoided, as is probate ... and there are no tax consequences for the recipient charity.
While saving money on taxes might not be your primary motivation in planning to leave money to a charity, the tax implications should, by no means, be overlooked.
The government taxes transfers of wealth both during your life and at your death. Currently, the federal gift and estate tax is imposed on transfers in excess of $5,430,000 and at a top rate of 40%. There's also a separate generation-skipping transfer tax or GST that is imposed on transfers made to grandchildren. For 2015, there's a $5,430,000 exemption and top rate of 40%.
So unless Uncle Sam is your favorite charity, it pays to minimize taxes in order to maximize the amount you give.
That's when a good financial advisor comes in handy. Working with an estate attorney, such an advisor can show you the benefits of, for example, charitable trusts. These allow you to make substantial gifts to a charitable organization without giving up all rights over the property.
Through a charitable trust, you can make a future gift to a charity and claim a tax deduction for the gift here and now. Which is perfect if you're charitably inclined but worried that if you are too generous there may not be enough for you.
There are two types of charitable trusts - a charitable lead trust and a charitable remainder trust.
The lead trust gives the charity a stream of income for a stated number of years. The donor, in turn, gets an immediate income tax deduction when he or she makes the gift. When the specified period ends, the remaining funds return to the donor or his or her beneficiary.
A remainder trust provides for a stream of income to the donor, either for a period of years or for life. When the period ends or the donor dies, the remainder of the funds is given to the charity.
There are other vehicles to consider - depending on the size of your estate – such as charitable annuities, community and private foundations, and donor advised funds. A good advisor will help you decide what's right for you.
Just remember, the right planning can help you leave money without doing without. And the right advisor can help you turn your portfolio into a lasting legacy.