Our Estate Plan B

John Yeigh

WHEN WE UPDATED our wills last year, my wife and I attempted to cover every imaginable scenario, including the future state of our children’s marriages, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and the like. Still, we and our lawyer missed one outlier scenario: What if our whole family was wiped out simultaneously? Think airplane or car crash.

This risk crossed my mind when our small family took a flight together for a recent vacation. Our core family is just six people: us and our two children, plus one child’s spouse and the other’s significant other. Because our tight-knit family spends plenty of time together, a catastrophic event could impact all of us.    

Since we’d all be gone, you might ask, “Why even worry about your estate?” One concern is our multitude of distant relatives who could potentially raise a fuss. We’re not close to our cousins and feel no obligation to leave them a windfall. With no heirs, our estate would become “intestate,” with state law deciding its distribution—which is what happens with the two-thirds of the population who don’t have a will.

We’d prefer that our estate help people of our choosing, rather than going to our cousins’ or the state’s coffers. But who? This provides the same vexing philanthropic challenge as many billionaires have, but on a far smaller scale.

Our charitable giving has primarily been to local community organizations which may not be equipped to make good use of a large donation in one tranche. National charities can handle any size bequest, but some large charities seem burdened by administrative bloat. The everything-must-go scenario demanded further research.

Ultimately, we chose four charities: a trusted community organization from our previous Maryland residence that we’ve supported for decades, a new-to-us community foundation here in New Hampshire, a national forest foundation aligned with our hiking interests, and our college alma mater.

This diversification ensures we’d have a positive impact across multiple causes. Limiting to four charities also helps the third-party executor keep the time involved—and hence the cost—in check. At least we now have a plan, even if we feel a bit of remorse about all the worthy charities we passed over.

Both the New Hampshire foundation and our college make it easy to establish endowed funds. These endowed funds then enable grants in perpetuity, and we directed these grants toward regions, community needs and scholarship areas of personal interest. Likewise, we targeted the forestry bequest toward conservation and environmental support for any of our Virginia to New Hampshire favorites. That said, we were careful not to over-prescribe, because we know our causes’ needs may change.

Our law firm quickly updated our wills by adding these charities as contingent beneficiaries, should we no longer have any heirs. Our lawyer indicated most wills don’t include this extra contingency coverage, but that multi-layered contingencies are more common with trusts. Still, such contingencies might be a good idea for readers with a small circle of beneficiaries, as well as shorter lists of possible executors or trustees. Adding the contingency clause would have been cost-free if we’d requested it when we drew up our wills, rather than adding the wording later.

In all this, choosing the charities was the tough part. Still, there was a silver lining: We’ve identified a new community charity for future giving, including for qualified charitable distributions and charitable gift annuity purchases once we’re in our 70s.

John Yeigh is an author, coach and youth sports advocate. His book “Win the Youth Sports Game” was published in 2021. John retired in 2017 from the oil industry, where he negotiated financial details for multi-billion-dollar international projects. Check out his earlier articles.

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