A look at the tax consequences of charitable bequests


As people face their own mortality, their legacy can become increasingly important to them, as their internal concept of self inevitably transitions to what others will say about them after they are gone. Charitable giving at the time of one’s death can often be an intentional shaping of that story — a way for people to still tell their own narrative after they are gone and shape what is remembered by others as having been important to them.

A bequest is a gift that is made through a person’s will or living trust that takes effect on that person’s death. This is the most common way that people make a gift to charity at the time of their death and has been the traditional way of making a legacy gift for many years. If your grandparents or parents made a large legacy gift to charity, it was probably done through a bequest.

Bequests are an important part of nonprofit fundraising and can serve the legacy planning purposes of the donor very well. Legacy giving allows donors to pass on more than just stuff and money at their death. It allows a way for donors to communicate their ethics and values to their heirs, as well as leave them a community improved by philanthropy.

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Bequests are a great option and an important tool for many donors in planning their legacy. However, it is noteworthy that bequests, like many other traditional tools, are affected by tax laws that have changed substantially over the years.

As a result, bequests may not always be the best method for legacy-giving for many taxpayers any longer. Before settling on using a bequest, it is worth a thoughtful examination of all of your options to ensure what is best for your situation.

About 20 years ago the amount of money someone could transfer to friends and family without paying federal transfer tax was $625,000. Gifts to charity were exempt from this amount, so if someone died with $1 million and left $600,000 to family and $400,000 to charity, then they would not have to pay federal estate tax.

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