“$9 Trillion…..”

Is a lot of money, for sure. By 2027, that is the amount of money projected to transfer from Americans’ estates to the next generation.

If just 5% of that amount is designated for charitable purposes – a mere $441 billion – that would be an amazing accomplishment.

But rather than leave it to luck or happenstance, our congregants still need to be asked.

The jury is still out as to whether recent tax law changes will impact the utilization of various planned giving instruments. The Federal estate tax exemption in 2018 has increased to $11.2 million for individuals and $22.4 million married couples – almost double from the 2017 rates. Of course, this does not impact a whole lot of people.

But what about the typical “Jew in the Pew” who might be transferring wealth? Congregants in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who have been a part of the synagogue community for most of their adult lives. They have bought plots in the synagogue’s cemetery. Financially, they are comfortable – able to do a bit of travelling while they are still healthy, for fun and to visit with grandchildren. They show up for the High Holy Days, for Yahrzeits on 3 or 4 Shabbats, and maybe for a special program. Over the years, when there has been a special capital campaign, they have contributed $10,000 or $25,000 – the higher amount when they were at their highest earning capacity.

Regardless of the tax law changes, donative intent remains the most important reason why someone makes either a straight contribution to a not-for-profit or synagogue. The second most important reason is because they were asked.

A few years ago, a prominent wealthy Jewish businessman passed away. He and his wife had created an estate plan early on in their marriage. And a part of their planning was to provide for various charitable organizations in the community. Through his estate, he had arranged for gifts of $1 million to the Jewish Federation, $1 million to his college, $500,000 to the JCC, and $500,000 to a community teaching hospital affiliated with a State University medical school.

He had also left $100,000 to his synagogue.

When an organization is named in a will like this, they receive from the estate’s attorney a distribution list of all recipient organizations and amounts. The synagogue’s rabbi couldn’t help but wonder why the synagogue was to receive only $100,000. He was certainly grateful, but the lesser amount earmarked for the synagogue, where this man and his family had been congregants for years, was gnawing at him.

So the rabbi called the attorney and asked him why. The attorney responded that he was very familiar with this man’s thinking in terms of his philanthropy through his estate, and simply said that all of the other institutions had specifically asked him to name their institution as a beneficiary. He didn’t want to leave the synagogue out.

This is one of my favorite stories that highlights that people like to be asked.

Back to the typical congregants: seldom will they name the synagogue in their will. And the reason that it doesn’t happen more frequently is the same as for the wealthy businessman above –  because they are not asked.

This generational transfer of wealth by 2027 – just 9 years from now – is a “call to arms” for synagogue leaders to establish legacy initiatives that, at a minimum, ask long time congregants to name the synagogue in their wills.

It will be a shame to miss out on this opportunity.

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