I remember a special gift from my Grandpa: a $20 bill in a Christmas card. It came with one instruction: Grandpa had to see my purchase. It was a lot of money for a 10-year old! It was the first time I’d had that much money, and I was a little concerned about using it wisely. It took a few weeks to decide, but eventually Grandpa was shown a sweater and a few books.
Although what we consider a lot of money will vary with age, stage of life and experience, receiving a sizeable gift of cash can cause headaches and stress not only for individuals, but also for churches. A bequest, which is a gift given through a person’s will, is the most common way for churches to receive a large or unexpected amount of money.
An undesignated bequest is a gift with no strings attached or detailed instructions in the donor’s will. Churches should have a bequest policy that will govern how undesignated bequests will be handled. By having such a policy, decisions are made in advance and there is a set process in place. In addition, having a bequest policy can lead to further bequests, as people may feel more comfortable leaving gifts to the church since they know how these gifts will be handled. Churches without policies are sometimes faced with trying to make decisions while a large amount of money is waiting. This can lead to a rushed process or poor decisions, and has even caused battles in some churches when agreement can’t be reached over how to use the legacy gift.
Bequest policies should indicate which council, board or committee can accept the bequest. Who makes the decision may vary depending on the size of the gift; perhaps the finance committee can accept a smaller bequest, while the board or council may need to approve larger gifts. The policy should also indicate types of gifts the church will not accept and who will have the final decision to refuse a bequest.
Designated bequests are gifts with strings attached. Generally, the gift comes with instructions in the will and indicates the gift must be used for a specific purpose. If the church cannot—or decides not to—meet the designation requirements, it must refuse the gift. Neither the estate trustees, nor surviving family or church members can change a designation in a will. As the donor is deceased, only the courts can authorize an alternate use. If you wish to leave a designated gift, you should ensure that the church will be able to meet the designation requirements both now and in the future.
MFC has an online bequest discussion paper available at MennoFoundation.ca/downloads/bequests.pdf and our consultants are available to meet with churches that wish to create, update or review a bequest policy. Individuals, couples or families wishing to explore gifts to the church or other charities can also benefit from meeting with MFC to discuss their wishes and to receive free counsel regarding the best way to make the gift.
While receiving a lot of unexpected money—whatever the amount may be—can cause stress, it can also bring opportunities, allow us to cast new visions and begin conversations.
Sherri Grosz is a stewardship consultant in the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC). For more information on impulsive generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca.
--Posted Oct. 22, 2014