To many, the term "bequest" conjures images of drawing rooms and great wealth. But you don't have to be a millionaire to include a gift to charity in your will. Even those of us with less than princely means can contribute to nonprofit organizations after we're gone. It only takes the desire to help and a legal will to insure your wishes are carried out.
"For a lot of people, their estate provides the best and often the only opportunity to make a major gift to the cause or causes they believe in," says Marlene Ferreira, spokeswoman for Leave a Legacy, a national public awareness campaign to promote charitable giving through wills and estate planning.
"Every day, people from all walks of life leave gifts of all sizes to help fight disease, promote the arts, save the environment, feed the hungry and much more."
While 72% of Americans give to charities each year, only about 8% include a bequest to charities in a will, reports the National Committee on Planned Giving. The most often cited reason is simple--they've never been asked to do so.
"It's a very basic concept," says Ferreira. "Once you've provided for your family and those you care about, you earmark an amount from what's left to be given to charity. Anyone can do it. You don't need to be wealthy, you just need to have a will to ensure that the distribution of your assets is done the way you've decided."
Charitable bequests most often include property--real estate, securities, objects of value or cash. Individuals can designate a percentage of their total estate, name a charity in a contingent bequest (which takes effect only if the primary beneficiaries are unable to receive their bequests), or designate all or part of their estate after all other bequests are satisfied. Donors also can designate how they'd like their gift to be used.
Once you've chosen a charity, it's best to contact the organization before your will is drawn up to get the charity's full legal name and explore options for specifying the use of your gift. Whether you notify the group about your bequest is your choice.
"While charities often like to honor donors, some people prefer to remain anonymous," says Ferreira. "It's a personal decision."
Besides public outreach, Leave a Legacy provides training to nonprofit organizations on starting a bequest program, and encourages attorneys, financial planners and accountants to ask if clients want to include charitable gifts in a will.
"It's one of those taboo topics," says Ferreira. "When an organization sits down with a donor, they have no problem discussing current gifts. But they're often reluctant to bring up what will happen 'after you pass away.' We help them develop ways to do so tactfully."
The group's materials include the names of more than 600 charitable groups, but people are not limited to just these. "Seeing the list of nonprofits may jog someone's memory of a group they would like to help in some way," says Ferreira. "But people can and should give to any charity they feel strongly about." If you are interested in making a charitable bequest, Leave a Legacy offers these suggestions:
* Prepare or update your will and include a gift for your favorite charity or religious organization.
* Ask financial or legal advisors about the tax advantages you can enjoy now by leaving a gift to a charity.
* Name your favorite charity as the beneficiary of an existing life insurance policy or purchase a new policy and name the charity as the beneficiary.
* Remember your loved ones with a charitable bequest in their honor.
* Name a charity as the beneficiary of your pension plan.