Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivered an insightful speech entitled “Cultural Climate Change: The Role of Religion in a Secularized West” in which he rebutted Darwin’s atheistic writings by saying “we hand on our genes as individuals, but we only survive as members of groups, and for a group to survive it has to have altruism among its members. It has to have people as part of a group that puts the group ahead of their own private interests.”
Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that when society is full of altruists then that society is rich in social capital. A society of individualists who think mainly of themselves is poor in social capital. While the Western world has arguably tilted toward the individualist, Sacks points out that social capital and altruism does exist in America, but it is found mainly in houses of worship.
I thought about this in relation to the horrific tragedies associated with Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In almost all cases one can point to altruistic behavior on the part of many Americans. It’s also evident that churches, synagogues and other houses of worship rallied to help those in need, organizing the collection of much needed food and supplies.
Naturally, as an estate planning attorney, Rabbi Sacks’ speech and my observation of recent tragedies got me thinking about charitable planning. I’d say that roughly one-in-five or twenty percent of my clients include charitable planning as part of their estate plan. That percentage increases with those that don’t have children or grandchildren.
We’re all pre-programmed to care for our children and put their needs above all others, including our own. Our genetic operating system is built that way to ensure survival. At the same time, I frequently engage in conversation with my clients over their concerns that large gifts and inheritances will end up being counterproductive. The common fear is that by giving too much the child will lose his or her ambition and drive.
Those in my profession site the proverb “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Similar sayings exist in other cultures. In Japan the expression goes, “Rice paddies to rice paddies in three generations.” The Scottish say, “The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells and his son begs.” In China, “Wealth never survives three generations.” Wisdom beckons from all corners of the globe.
So what is one to do? Should we create charitable remainder trusts or fund private foundations with our estate plans? That would certainly satisfy our altruistic desires. Many über-wealthy individuals such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have joined in The Giving Pledge, which is a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate a majority of their wealth to giving back.
Is that too easy for those with billions? If they only leave a fraction of their estates to family then that fraction may still add up to tens of millions of dollars, or more than enough for their offspring to not work and enjoy an easier lifestyle.
For those of us with more modest means, we worry that our children and grandchildren have enough to be educated, live in a decent neighborhood, enjoy a comfortable retirement and provide healthcare into old age. Is that altruistic enough? And what about our larger society? Rather than giving a portion of our wealth to those in need, should we instead abide by the adage, “charity begins at home?”
I don’t believe that there are any easy answers to these questions. Every individual must consider his own circumstances, goals and desires. There are estate planning vehicles that provide income to family for life or a stated number of years then terminate to charity, or work in the other direction by giving income to charity for a stated number of years then distributing principal to loved ones at its termination. There are a variety of options available.
If these thoughts appeal to you, rather than “going through the motions” when sitting down with your estate planning attorney generating documents that simply divide your wealth at death, perhaps consider combining your altruistic inclination with your aspirations to provide for your loved ones.
The Sheppard Law Firm is located in Fort Myers and Naples by appointment.
© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.