Giving Estate Assets to Charity

These days, New York estate planning attorneys are finding it far more common for New Yorkers to give a portion of their estate to charity. They can do this because the law recognizes charitable organizations as legal entities in the same category as ordinary persons. As a result of this characterization, a charitable organization is free to receive testamentary gifts – i.e. gifts from a person’s estate – as if it were merely a transfer from one person to another.

Unlike gifts to ordinary persons though, lawmakers typically want to encourage charitable giving. Charitable giving tends to distribute the wealth across a broader spectrum of people or causes, rather than keeping assets tied up within a single family. As a result of these public policy theories, lawmakers have created tax incentives designed to encourage people to write charitable gifts into their wills.

A typical testamentary gift to charity can be achieved in several different ways. One of the most common ways to do it is to leave the charity a percentage of one’s estate. A gift of this sort would read something to the effect of: “I give ___% of my estate to X Charity.” The only trouble with this kind of gift is that its value is uncertain. The value of one’s estate is a function of how much of one’s assets remain at the end of one’s life. Therefore, it is not until one dies that the charity will learn of the value of its gift.

Another common way to leave a gift to charity is to give a fixed amount or a particular piece of property. A gift of this sort would read: “I give $____ to X Charity” or “I give my property located at [address] to X Charity.” This kind of gift is far more certain because in the first instance a fixed dollar amount is gifted. In the second instance, a property of a certain current value is promised, and the charity can reasonably predict its future value.

Another way is to grant the charity a remainder of one’s estate once other beneficiaries are gone. Charities are potentially infinite in duration, unlike people. It is possible to leave certain loved ones your assets once you are gone, and for the charity to take the remainder of those assets (if any) once your loved ones are deceased.

Still another common way to leave a charitable gift is by making a charity the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. Because charities are “people” in the eyes of the law, a charity can be designated as a beneficiary to be paid upon the death of the policyholder, just like any ordinary person can. Similarly, charities can be named the beneficiaries of any retirement plan.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. A New York estate lawyer is best equipped to explain the nuances of each of these variations and to explain the other variations of charitable giving. In cases where the client wants to bequeath some or all of his or her assets to charity, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

New York City Trusts and Estates Lawyer Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in Probate and Estate Administration proceedings throughout the past 30 years. I have represented clients in many counties including Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a Last Will or other aspects of Probate or Estate Administration, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.

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