You Should Have a Will

For sample bequest language, see below.

by Kim Klein

Printed with permission from Jossey Bass. This article is for general information only. The specific laws of your state may vary. Seek appropriate legal advice for your specific situation.

Everyone should have a will. In the same way that you have authority over what to do with your property during your lifetime, you can take responsibility for what happens to it after your death. Or let the state decide. But seven out of ten people don't have a will and of the 30 percent, who do have a will, 50 percent leave their entire estate to their spouse.

Further, half of all people with wills have wills that are five years old or more. To get a sense of just how much money is distributed from estates without wills, $100,000,000 a week goes through probate courts from intestate estates here in the United States.

If you die without a will (intestate), the law specifies who will receive your estate. If you are survived by a spouse and not by a child or a parent, your spouse receives all your property. If you are survived by a spouse and if you have no surviving children, your spouse will receive your entire estate. If you are survived by a spouse and children, and all the children are the children of the spouse, your entire estate also goes to your surviving spouse.

In this case, your children would not share in your property. If, however, a spouse and children survive you, and if your children are not the children of your surviving spouse, then your children would share in the estate.

A few examples of people who died without wills may convince you: First, there is Mary Springhill, a 40-year-old woman who died recently of breast cancer. She had no children and her parents were dead. She was separated, but not divorced from her husband. Legally, he is the surviving spouse. Mary was a successful artist, and her estate, including a house, new car, and some savings, was worth a little over $400,000. Mary mistakenly believed that, since her estate was under $600,000, there was no point in getting a will.

During the time she had cancer, she was too sick to think about preparing a will, and was probably not aware of how much she was worth. What's sad about Mary's husband getting her entire estate is that she left him three years prior to her death after enduring his physical and emotional abuse for more than 15 years.

In another example, Alice Williams, a pro-choice activist was killed in a car accident at age 33. She and her parents had clashed about her pro-choice views, and her general progressive attitude toward all issues.

Her parents were active in their fundamentalist Baptist church and had told their daughter, on a number of occasions, that she was going to hell. Although they were on speaking terms and Alice spent some holidays with them, their relationship was very strained.

Alice thought she was too young to need a will and, again, that her estate did not warrant the cost of going to an attorney to draw up a will. (Alice erroneously believed that only attorneys can make legally binding wills.) She had an inheritance of $100,000 that she received from an aunt when she was 21. She had never spent it, although she occasionally augmented her meager salary with the interest generated. Through her work, she had a life insurance policy worth $25,000.

This estate of $125,000 went to her parents. Alice may not have objected to that, however, her parents believed that her money could, as they put it, "nullify some of the evil work poor Alice had done," and they gave it all to a wide variety of far-right organizations.

Everyone is probably familiar with the high number of AIDS patients who leave no wills, causing estates to return to parents who had not spoken to them in years. Or the classic case of a daughter caring for an aged parent until the death of the parent, then being forced to share an estate with a sibling who had not shared in the care or expense at all.

Most people underestimate the worth of their estate and overestimate the ability of themselves or others to handle money. They overestimate the time and cost of setting up a will, and do not realize the work involved in getting an estate in order after someone is dead. Finally, besides the distribution of your property, a will can express your desire about how you want to be buried, who you want to care for your children or pets, and other legal and moral obligations you need to make your heirs aware of.

The Bequest

A bequest is one of the oldest methods of supporting non-profits. One of the first and most famous bequests was given by Ben Franklin in 1790. He left the equivalent of $4,000 (in British pounds) to be split between the people of the State of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia. The state received 76 percent of the bequest and the city 24 percent. He left it on the condition it not be touched for 200 years.

In 1998, his bequest was worth $2.3 million and it can now be spent. A group of Franklin scholars was given authority to recommend the best use of the money. It has been decided that the money belonging to the people of Philadelphia will be kept in a permanent endowment at the Philadelphia Foundation; the state's money will be shared between the Franklin Institute and a consortium of community foundations around the state. Franklin himself had put no strings on the money.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received one of the first bequests explicitly designated for an endowment. In 1867, Benjamin Hicks left his estate to his mother, with the stipulation that, on her death, $20,000 went to the society. On the death of a cousin, another $20,000 went to the society. His mother left her own bequest of another $20,000. In today's dollars, each $20,000 gift would be worth about $350,000. Hicks specified that only the interest from his gift could be used and the principal has to remain intact.

Making a Bequest

Anyone can make a bequest. All that is required is that you are alive and of sound mind when you make your will, and that you own something that you can't take with you.

You may think that bequests are only for wealthy people. In fact, however, if all you own is a 1969 Dodge Dart, you can leave your car to a nonprofit and they can sell it for $200 and take the money.

In 1987, an 84-year old woman in upper Tennessee left her church $50,000 in a bequest. She had never earned more than $3,000 a year in her life, and lived from Social Security and the vegetables she grew in her garden. Her husband and son had been killed in a mining accident, and she had no other relatives. She was very poor, and many of her needs had been taken care of by members of her church. Her bequest came from the value of the land she lived on and two antique quilts.

Wording of Bequests

Please note that gifts of this nature should be carefully considered in relation to your comprehensive financial and estate plans. We strongly recommend that you consult an attorney in the preparation of your will and to supervise its execution so as to comply with your state requirements. The following are examples for illustration only.

When including a bequest provision in your will, always use the full legal name of the group you are designating the beneficiary, and make sure to provide the federal taxpayer identification number.

The General Bequest
This is the simplest bequest in which a donor gives a stated amount to the non-profit without any conditions attached.

  • For a bequest of securities, the possible language is: I give Crossroads Fund all of my shares of XYZ stock or mutual funds to be used for the benefit of Crossroads Fund, Chicago, Illinois, tax id# 36-3092907.
  • For a bequest of cash, the possible language is: I give to Crossroads Fund the sum of (AMOUNT) to be used for the benefit of Crossroads Fund, Chicago, Illinois, tax id# 36-3092907.

Income Only to be Used
"I give and bequeath to the Crossroads Fund the sum of $_________ to be invested or reinvested so that the income only may be used as the Board of Directors directs." A phrase should indicate how long the principal should remain intact and what should happen if the organization should terminate.

Bequest of a Percentage
If you do not want to specify the exact amount or nature of the intended gift, perhaps because the size of your future estate is difficult to estimate, a proportional bequest can be the best way to accomplish your goals.  Crossroads Fund would receive a percentage of the estate or the residue of the estate after all other provisions have been met.

  • Possible language: I give to Crossroads Fund _______% of my estate, or _____% of the rest, residue and remainder of my estate to be used for the benefit of Crossroads Fund.

Bequest of Residue

This is a provision in a will leaving the remainder of one's estate to an organization after all other bequests are fulfilled. "The rest, residue and remainder of my estate, both real and personal, wherever situated, I give and bequeath to the Crossroads Fund to be used as the Board of Directors directs."

Contingent Bequest
This leaves a bequest to the non-profit if any other beneficiaries are unable to receive their bequests because of death or other circumstances. Generally this reads, "Should ______ (name of person) predecease me, the portion of my estate going to (person) I give and bequeath to Crossroads Fund. Everyone should have a contingent bequest in their will in case the will becomes very dated and circumstances have changed since it was drafted.

All bequests are revocable during your life because you can change your will as often as you want. For your own sake, please make a will. For the sake of social change organizing in and around Chicago, please consider making a bequest to the Crossroads Fund.