Bequests: Please Ask

It always seems that death happens in threes.

My mother once told me this. When someone passes away, there will be a couple other people who you know or know of who pass away within a few days. She wasn’t talking about TV or Film stars, or politicians. She was talking about people who we knew, or loved ones of people we knew.

She didn’t know the reason why. Just that is happens. I think a lot about things my mother said and taught me. I laugh some times about them. But this one happens much too frequently to simply be an old wives’ tale.

Several years ago, there was one spring at our synagogue where this happened. And it was three “Balebatim” -the Machars – of the synagogue since its founding twenty years before. Of course thinking with a fundraising mindset, I wondered if any of them had made provisions in their will for the synagogue. They had been a part of this synagogue community for most of their adult lives. Their children grew up there. It was the place of Simchas as well as community support when it was needed. You know the drill.

One person had named the synagogue as a beneficiary in their will: $20,00 for the purchase of a new Torah Table on the Bima. No one ever asked Stanley, Irv, or Leonard to do this. They were not millionaires, but they were comfortable. When Leonard re-wrote his will 10 years before he felt this was something important, as the temple had given he and his family so much throughout the years.

At least this is the reason that was reported by Leonard’s son as to why he left this bequest to the synagogue.

A colleague once shared a story with me about a gentleman of significant means from his community. In his will he made financial arrangements for all of the community institutions that he had supported throughout his lifetime. He left $1 million each to the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Home for The Aged, the community hospital, and the local art museum.

And he left his synagogue $100,000.

The rabbi asked the attorney handling the estate if he had any insight as to why this gentleman named Fred – who had been a member of the synagogue for 30 years – had left $1 million to all of the other institutions on the distribution list all beneficiaries receive when the will is probated, and only $100,000 to the synagogue. The attorney shared with the rabbi that he, too had asked Fred that same question two years ago when he revised this latest will.

Fred responded, “Because the synagogue never asked me”.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog with some ideas and synagogue resources on this topic. Have a webpage about bequests. Create a Bequest Society to thank and recognize congregants who have expressed their kindness and support to the synagogue in this way. And keep asking and providing avenues for congregants to express interest, or to let you know that they have named the synagogue as a beneficiary in their will. You never know when someone will be ready to do this, whether it is for $20,000 like Leonard, $100,000 like Fred, or even more.

But you have to ask, or it will only happen by luck or happenstance.

1 Comment on “Bequests: Please Ask

  1. I wanted to share an email from David Reff:


    I think your post missed a discussion of the low hanging fruit, retirement plans such as IRA’s and 401K’s. To change a will or trust involves a visit with the lawyer and professional fees. I find it is something that my clients put off because they don’t want to deal with their own demise and figure out exactly who is going to be in charge of their kids if they are minors, who should be the trustee, and a zillion other issues.

    To make the Temple a beneficiary of their retirement plan, all they need to do if fill out a piece of paper and sent it to their broker or pension trustee. If they are worried that there won’t be enough money left over for their spouse or children when they die they can later easily change the beneficiary percentages. (A downside of course). Generally beneficiaries are shown as a percentage of the retirement plan. One can make their spouse the primary beneficiary and the Temple a secondary beneficiary which only gives the Temple the money if both die together, unless the surviving spouse includes the Temple as a beneficiary in the roll over plan.

    Yes there are disadvantages and I think every Temple would prefer a clause leaving money to them in a will over being named a beneficiary of a retirement plan, but the hurdle to get named as a beneficiary of a retirement plan is so much lower than having someone change their will or trust.

    David Reff

    Hi David,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this subject which i have posted on the website along with this response to you.

    This is a great idea. I actually think that there may be advantages to being the beneficiary of a retirement plan rather than a will. With people living longer and the costs associated with aging in terms of health care and long term care, our expectations as to what will be in our estates upon our passing at 85 or beyond might not be met.

    You have given me an idea for a future blog which I greatly appreciate.



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