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How to donate to charity in your will

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Offering donations to charities and organizations is one of the best ways to live your values and transform the lives of future generations. By donating to charity in your will, you can continue helping the causes you care about most and leave a lasting legacy.

That said, even a well-intentioned gift requires careful thought, since making charitable donations comes with certain tax and estate planning implications. Here's everything you need to know about setting up charitable donations in your will.

What can you donate to charity in your will?

It's common to leave money in your will to a charity, but you can actually donate several types of assets, including:

  • Financial assets such as stocks, bonds or cash
  • Life insurance benefits such as death benefits from a whole life insurance policy
  • Real estate such as your primary home or investment properties
  • Personal property such as jewelry, a car, collectibles or artwork
  • Retirement assets such as proceeds from an annuity, your IRA, 401(k) or other qualified retirement accounts

You can choose to allocate all or just a portion of these assets to the charity or organization of your choice. As part of your estate planning, it's worth leaving specific instructions for the executor of your estate to notify the charity of your death in a timely manner. Include details about how and when they can access your donation.

Please note that given the legal nature of estate planning, it is always beneficial to review estate planning with a legal professional. Thrivent does not provide specific legal or tax advice, but we can partner with you and your tax professional or attorney to provide details on your overall financial strategy at Thrivent.

4 ways to set up charitable donations in your will

No matter what assets you decide to donate, have a strategy in place. You can donate to charity with a bequest through your will, designating a charity as a life insurance beneficiary or as a beneficiary for your retirement accounts, and by creating a charitable lead or charitable remainder trust.

1. A bequest through your will

One of the most straightforward ways to make charitable donations after death is via a bequest through your will.

With this approach, you can designate assets such as stocks, bonds or real estate to a charity through your will or a revocable trust, a type of trust where you can change the terms or provisions. When you pass away, these assets will be removed from your estate, which could help to reduce estate taxes.

You can donate a specific asset, a certain dollar amount, a percentage of your estate or any assets remaining in your estate after your loved ones receive their share. You could even name a charity as a contingent beneficiary—a person or entity that will receive assets from the estate in the event the primary beneficiary cannot do so.

2. Designate the charity as your life insurance beneficiary

You can choose a charity to be a beneficiary of your life insurance proceeds, annuity or retirement accounts. Designating a charity as your beneficiary could lower the value of your estate, which may reduce estate taxes.

To do so, you'll need to complete the beneficiary forms for that particular asset and list the charity as a beneficiary of that asset. You must provide the organization's tax ID number to make this change and notify the charity that their organization is a beneficiary of your policy.

There are some things to keep in mind when donating beneficiary proceeds to charity. Ensure that your life insurance provider allows you to designate a charity as your beneficiary in the first place, as some insurers prohibit this. How you structure this gift is also important. As long as you remain the owner of the policy, you can still access the contract's cash value if you have whole life coverage. It's also more straightforward for the charity, since they'll receive a lump-sum payment after your death. However, the drawback of this approach is that the asset may still count as part of your estate, which means estate may taxes apply.

Alternatively, you could transfer ownership of the policy to the charity. The advantage here is that the policy won't be counted as part of your estate—however, you can't reverse the decision. That being said, this approach may be worthwhile if you have a smaller, secondary whole life insurance policy you want to designate for charity.

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Charitable Strategies: Bequests and Beneficiary Proceeds

3. Designate a charity as a beneficiary for your retirement accounts

With an IRA or other qualified retirement account, you can designate a charity as the beneficiary. Estates with charities as beneficiaries may benefit from an estate tax perspective. The charity also benefits, since they do not have to pay income tax on any of these proceeds. If you're married or have a domestic partner, just make sure that your spouse also consents to making the charity a beneficiary. Otherwise, it could disqualify the charity from receiving your retirement proceeds once the time comes.

Another option is to donate your retirement proceeds via a donor-advised fund, an account created specifically for donations to charity. First, you make an irrevocable contribution of assets such as cash, stock, real estate or private business interests to the fund. Then, you and your family can make grants to your chosen charities—while you're still living as well as after you die. Assets in the fund may grow over time, making more money available for your favorite charities. Your contributions may also be eligible for a charitable tax deduction during the year the gift is made.

4. Create a charitable lead or charitable remainder trust

A charitable lead trust is an irrevocable split-interest trust in which a charity receives proceeds from the trust during its life, and other beneficiaries (typically family members) receive any remaining assets once the trust terminates.

A charitable remainder trust functions as the exact opposite. Although it is also an irrevocable split-interest trust, the funds flip: non-charitable beneficiaries receive an income stream from the trust, and a charity receives any assets remaining once the trust has been terminated.

Consider consulting an estate planning attorney to walk you through the specific rules dictating how assets must be distributed and the length of time a beneficiary can receive income from the trust. Despite the work involved, split-interest trusts offer tax benefits, including tax-exempt status.

Read more: Charitable giving: The options & benefits explained

What to consider before you donate to charity in your will

If you want to donate to charity in your will, set aside time to really think about which organizations to support. Ask yourself several questions:

  • Does the organization's mission align with my values?
  • What causes are most important to me?
  • How much can I afford to donate?
  • Are there charitable organizations my family loves that we can donate to together?
  • Do I want to designate my charitable contributions for a specific purpose within the organization?

Once you decide the best route for donations, make a list of potential charities and discuss your plans with your loved ones. Then, sit down with a financial advisor and/or estate planning attorney to figure out how much you can donate to your chosen charities and how to best structure your charitable donations for maximum impact. Putting a plan for charitable giving in place now helps ensure you leave a lasting legacy.

Are you ready to make the most of your giving? We can help you determine if a gift of bequests or beneficiary proceeds is right for you. Contact your Thrivent financial advisoror visit thriventcharitable.com.

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Thrivent Charitable Impact & Investing® is a public charity that serves individuals, organizations and the community through charitable planning, donor-advised funds and endowments. Thrivent Charitable Impact & Investing works collaboratively with Thrivent and its financial advisors. It is a separate legal entity from Thrivent, the marketing name for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.
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