Many parents hope to pass their values onto their children and grandchildren. Often one of the most important values that they hope to pass on are values based on religion and spirituality. In some cases, religious values are so important to a parent that they will even include mention of these values in their estate planning documents. Our firm strongly believes that an estate plan is not just about money, but about leaving a legacy, and we often encourage our clients to include mention of their values–religious or otherwise.
Formalizing a legacy of values is not always as easy as leaving a financial legacy, however; and there is a limit to how far a parent or grandparent can go in dictating religious values to their heirs. Being too restrictive in an estate plan in an effort to pass on religious values–choosing to disinherit children who marry outside the faith, for example–can often create divisions within a family and spark extended, costly legal battles, all while failing to have any true impact on your heirs’ beliefs. In addition, many of these clauses have historically been poorly drafted and violate the public policy of the freedom to marry and are stricken by courts.
One of the most common value-imposing strategies used by parents in estate planning is to require that children marry within a certain faith in order to receive their inheritance. This strategy has worked in some instances, for example, in 2009 the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the decisions of lower courts and unanimously ruled that Max Feinberg, and his wife, Erla, could legally cut off their grandchildren who chose to marry outside of the Jewish religion.
While this strategy may be accepted by the courts, it is often hurtful, and quite frequently expensively controversial, causing some heirs to challenge the will or trust; a process which can take many years and thousands of dollars to resolve. It is often better to explore other options as far as passing on values. One alternative to strict religious provisions that may penalize heirs who choose a different faith is to instead leave money for children and grandchildren in trust, and give your trustee discretion to make distributions based on the values you highlight when creating the trust. In this way you can provide guidance on how you would like your money to be distributed, but you leave some leeway for the trustee to consider special circumstances that you may not have anticipated and to weigh the potential consequences of each decision.
A trusted and sensitive estate planner can talk to you about what is important to you and your family, and help you choose the best and most respectful way to pass on your wealth and your values while not violating public policy and creating a costly will or trust contest after your gone.