Leaving a legacy: Making a charitable gift by will

April 9, 2019

A St. Martha Catholic Church parishioner, who was a widow, dedicated her estate, close to $5 million, so the church could build a new chapel. Photo courtesy of St. Martha Catholic Church in Kingwood.

HOUSTON — End of life decisions are often difficult conversations. From care to medical directives to funeral arrangements, none of it is easy. Finding ways to leave a legacy is one way the faithful can make their mark on their faith. 

Most recently, a long-time parishioner at St. Martha Catholic Church in Kingwood wished for the church to be the recipient of her estate. 

“She specified that she wanted a chapel built in her honor, and that is what we did,” said church Pastor Father T.J. Dolce.

The parishioner, who was a widow, said she had no children and was very frugal and very generous to the Church. Her estate contribution was close to $5 million. 

“We needed a chapel, but we didn’t expect to get it from one gift from one parishioner. It was going to be part of our next building project, but we will be able to use a new chapel by the fall,” Father Dolce said.

He said the new day chapel will seat 250 and be used for daily Mass, smaller weddings and funerals, Baptisms, and sung vespers for the parish. 

“It will also be a great place for prayer and maybe day retreats for ministries in our parish,” Father Dolce said.

Making a charitable bequest in a will enables a parishioner to leave a lasting legacy. Here are seven generally accepted ways to make a bequest that can be discussed with a lawyer as one prepares or updates their will.

1. Specific bequest. This is a gift of a specific item to a specific beneficiary. For example, “I give my golf clubs to my nephew, John.” If that specific property has been disposed of before death, the bequest fails and no claim can be made to any other property. (In other words, John wouldn’t receive the value of the golf clubs instead.) 

2. General bequest. This is usually a gift of a stated sum of money. It will not fail, even if there is not sufficient cash to meet the bequest. For example, “I give $50,000 to my daughter Mary.” If there is only $2,500 cash in the estate, other assets must be sold to meet the bequest. 

3. Contingent bequest. This is a bequest made on condition that a certain event must occur before distribution to the beneficiary. For example, “I give $50,000 to my son, Joe, provided he enrolls in college before age 21.” A contingent bequest is specific in nature and fails if the condition is not met. 

4. Residuary bequest. This is a gift of all the “rest, residue and remainder” of the estate after all other bequests, debts and taxes have been paid. For example, if property is owned that is worth $500,000, and it is intended to give a child $50,000 by specific bequest and leave $450,000 to a spouse through a residuary bequest. If the debts, taxes and expenses are $100,000, there would only be $350,000 left for the surviving spouse. Rather, divide the estate according to percentages of the residue (rather than specifying dollar amounts), to ensure that beneficiaries receive the proportions desired.

The previous items can apply in the case of bequests to individual heirs or bequests to charitable organizations.

The following items are special considerations when planned to make a charitable bequest to help support the mission of the Archdiocese.

5. Unrestricted bequest. This is a gift for the general purposes of the Archdiocese to be used at the discretion of its leadership. A gift like this — without conditions attached — is frequently the most useful, as it allows the Archdiocese to determine the wisest and most pressing need for the funds at the time of receipt.

6. Restricted bequest. This type of gift allows the person to specify how the funds are to be used if they have a special purpose or project in mind. If so, it’s best to consult the Archdiocese when the will is made to be certain the person’s intent can be carried out.

7. Honorary or memorial bequest. This is a gift given “in honor of” or “in memory of” someone. The Archdiocese honors that request and have many ways to grant appropriate recognition.

“If someone wants to make a donation like this, all they have to do is write it in their will,” Father Dolce said. “They also need their families and the executor of the will to know this is what they want to do with their money. In our case, the lady who donated the money did not have any children and no immediate family to give her money to. She made sure the executor of her estate knew to give the money to the church. We are really blessed by her generosity!”

For more information on leaving a legacy to a parish or the Archdiocese, contact Michael Schillaci at mschillaci@archgh.org or 713-652-4418. †