An intro to estate planning


For ministry leaders, ‘estate planning’ isn’t a priority; plus, a lot of misconceptions surround the process. 
To ensure your wishes are carried out and to protect your loved ones, it’s crucial to have a deeper understanding of what estate planning involves — and to get started now, while you can make the best possible decisions.

Financial planners: when and why did you enter into the world of financial services ministry?  

Rev. James R. Cook: I served for more than a decade in pastoral ministry in larger churches. I always enjoyed the business side of ministry, including the financial aspects of running a church. I was invited to join the MMBB staff almost 24 years ago, and it felt like the perfect opportunity to blend my passion for ministry and my interest in business and finance.  

Alex Kim: After spending decades in the financial services private sector, I joined the world of financial services ministry in 2019. I joined because I wanted to help those who truly need help. I believed my services would have greater impact and provide more meaning to the clergy.

Colin Nass: I joined MMBB in 2016 primarily because there was a significant need to provide clergy with unbiased financial education and guidance. The work we do with our members really is meaningful and provides a great deal of satisfaction knowing that we have impacted someone’s life.

Alina Parizianu: I entered the financial services ministry world seven years ago, after spending 14 years in investment banking and corporate banking. My career shift to personal finance was a call from God — it has been very rewarding to be in the position to impact the lives of so many MMBB members through financial planning. 

Ministry leaders: when and how did you become familiar with MMBB?

Rev. Jay Noll: I first became familiar with MMBB in the mid-1990s when I became a pastor; my denomination worked closely with the organization.  

Rev. LaThelma Yenn-Batah: I became familiar with MMBB while serving as the associate executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries. I got the impression that MMBB truly cared about the people they serve. 

I learned that firsthand as a participant in the Strategic Pastoral Excellence Program (SPEP). MMBB has changed the quality of life for my entire family.

Before working with MMBB, how involved in / familiar with were you with estate planning? How has your knowledge of estate planning “evolved” since then?

Rev. Yenn-Batah: I had general knowledge from poor decision-making in my family. However, I didn’t feel confident that I had a comprehensive understanding.

Now we are taking steps to meet with attorneys to start the estate planning process. 

Rev. Noll: Before working with MMBB, my knowledge of estate planning was limited. My parents had given me a life insurance policy when I was a young adult, but I didn’t invest in learning more about the specifics of it.  

My knowledge of estate planning grew exponentially through my involvement with MMBB, which led to my taking specific steps to better prepare. These steps didn’t happen overnight, but slowly evolved over the years. They periodically sent literature that brought the issue to light and resulted in my learning more about potential scenarios. 

A series of personal events facilitated my reaching out to MMBB on a number of occasions, and I spoke with some of their representatives. These conversations proved to be invaluable and helped me to prepare in specific ways I knew virtually nothing about before.

One specific way this unfolded was through MMBB regularly reminding its members to update their beneficiary information. Their doing so sparked my learning about how to set up a special needs trust fund for my daughter. 

Their assistance unfolded in another way, too: they raised questions for me to consider and advised me to speak with people who specialized in certain dynamics that are part of my life. The conversations with these experts wouldn’t have taken place if MMBB had not pointed me in the right direction.

Financial planners: when we think about the term “estate planning”, are there common misconceptions surrounding the process? 

Kim: Yes, there definitely are some common misconceptions. For example, many people think that estate planning is just for the wealthy, but it’s not. 

For example, any adult can benefit from having the right healthcare proxy document to designate someone else to represent your medical needs when you cannot speak for yourself due to incapacity or some other medical limitations. Or any parent with a minor child can benefit from naming a guardian for their child in their will. Another example is anyone looking to posthumously care for a special-needs child’s long term financial future.  

Pretty much anyone should be committed to estate planning — for example, anyone who wants to plan for (1) proper transfer of their assets to the right people in the right manner after their death, (2) management of their financial matters if they happen to be incapacitated, (3) proper care of their own personal medical needs if they can’t speak for themselves, (4) care of their minor children after their death, or (5) care of special needs children’s long-term future. 

Nass: Unfortunately, when it comes to estate planning, there are lots of misconceptions, including — as [Alex Kim] mentioned — that it’s only for the wealthy; you only need a will; you don’t need to worry about this until later in life; once you have a will in place, you’re done. The reality is that everyone should have an estate plan, especially if there are dependents, a significant other, or specific instructions you want followed in the event of death or disability.   

It’s important to understand that accidents and illnesses leading to death and disability can happen at any time and without a plan in place, your loved ones might be overwhelmed with the loss of a loved one in addition to trying to figure out how to manage their financial lives.

Parizianu: I agree; common misconceptions about estate planning are that it’s only for individuals with significant wealth — with a large estate — or for the very old. The truth is that every adult needs one, regardless of their age or wealth. 

What ‘estate’ means is everything you own: your house, car, bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, life insurance, furniture
and personal possessions. An estate plan reduces time and expenses that
dying intestate (without a will) would otherwise entail. Your surviving family members will get access faster to your assets if you create a will that names an executor of your estate; and if all your investment accounts have updated beneficiary designations. 

An estate plan also allows you to plan for incapacity, if/when you are unable to make your own decisions, as a result of an accident, for example — medical and financial decisions. Creating Healthcare Directives ensures that the person you appoint as the guardian has legal permission to carry out your healthcare wishes, and there are a few options you can choose from to manage your financial decisions as well. 

Lastly, anyone with minor children needs to have a will. A will is an essential component of an estate plan that lets you name a guardian for your children, as they can’t inherit property directly until the age of majority.

Rev. Cook: The biggest misconception about estate planning is that it’s just about ‘what happens to my property when I die.’ Most people, when they hear ‘estate planning’, think Wills or Trusts and don’t realize that it encompasses a number of other areas that can impact our quality of life while we are living.  

That kind of thinking leads people to believe that estate planning is for the ‘old’. But estate planning isn’t just about what happens when I die; it’s also about what happens if I should become incapacitated and unable to manage my own financial or medical affairs. That can happen at any point in life, so every adult should have some interest in estate planning.  

Ministry leaders, what about you? What misconceptions or “surprises” surrounding estate planning did you encounter yourselves?

Rev. Noll: I learned that estate planning is more than considering end-of-life issues. MMBB helped me think about how to prepare for the possibility of losing my job or being unable to work. 

Another surprise was eventually realizing that I had underestimated the importance of planning. “I’m not wealthy, so I don’t have much of an estate to be concerned about. Why do I need to think about this?” I now see the importance of getting my affairs in order before a crisis hits. 

Rev. Yenn-Batah: I originally used an online platform. I thought that estate planning was generic but learned that every state has certain rules and regulations, and you need the help of an attorney to understand those. 

Because I’m not wealthy, I didn’t think of myself as having an estate. I learned that, while modest, I do have an estate.

For our financial planners: when your team has written about estate planning in the past, you’ve emphasized the role of an executor. Who is this exactly, and why is he or she so important?  

Nass: The executor is an individual you designate to manage the distribution of assets in the event of your death. This individual plays a critical role and often needs to coordinate with attorneys, tax preparers, beneficiaries and creditors if necessary. The executor typically is responsible for safeguarding assets, paying outstanding debts, ensuring tax and court filings are timely, coordinating with beneficiaries and, finally, the distribution of assets. 

The executor will have a great deal of responsibility and should be someone who is organized, trustworthy and — most importantly — willing to fill the role. Note also that this person might need to settle disputes between beneficiaries should they arise. A good executor is like a quarterback that coordinates all aspects of the estate settlement process.    

As trusted members of the community, church leaders might be asked by members of the congregation to provide guidance on estate planning and selecting an executor. Understanding the roles and responsibilities the executor plays will allow church leaders to help members better navigate their options and make informed decisions. By being able to articulate the characteristics of a good executor,  a church leader can assist someone creating an estate plan to evaluate his or her options.  

Parizianu: The executor will be responsible for administering the directives of the will, allocating the assets properly on your behalf. It’s important to choose wisely the person who will carry this responsibility — ideally someone who is reliable, lives close by, someone who is capable of dealing with multiple heirs and beneficiaries, and someone who will likely outlive you.

Rev. Cook: Your executor is the person whom you name to represent your estate after your death. They’re responsible for executing the terms of the will and bringing to conclusion the final financial affairs of your life. This includes distributing assets according to the terms of your will and paying any financial obligations you owe out of the proceeds of your estate. 

Most people name a trusted individual or family member as an executor, but you can name an institution, such as a bank or trust company.  

If you’re naming an individual, you need to make them aware that you have named them, and they should be aware of the obligation they’re agreeing to. Since they will be responsible for settling your estate, it’s important to make sure that you make them aware of where important documents are located, including a copy of your will, so that they will be able to access all of the information they need.

Kim: The executor is appointed by the deceased person (while they are alive) to administer and execute the will after their death. This person pretty much acts as the ‘project manager’ in making sure the estate plan of the deceased person is carried out as intended.  

This person works with the attorney, probate court, tax advisor, financial advisor, insurance representatives, creditors, as well as the family of the deceased, to make sure the wishes of the deceased are carried out. The executor works in a ‘fiduciary’ capacity and has a legal obligation to represent the best interest of the deceased person’s estate.   

So, estate planning is important personally — but is it also a ministry opportunity? 

Parizianu: Yes; according to a survey from senior living referral service at the end of 2021, 67 percent of respondents (2,644 adults ages 18 and over) indicated that they don’t have a will or a trust. They don’t have guardianship for their children; they’re not prepared for critical life events. It’s a great ministry opportunity to help families become aware and act on estate planning for themselves, even if they don’t leave a gift to the ministry. 

Churches can foster education around this topic in their congregation and ask ministry donors to remember the ministry in their estate planning, also. First, this will help the members, since most of them have no plan established. Second, it will build financial strength for the ministry in the long term.

Rev. Cook: I completely agree. When I served in a pastoral role, we would actually bring in estate planning professionals to the congregation on a periodic basis to help congregants.

Part of an estate plan is creating Advance Medical Directives (sometimes called a Living Will) and naming a representative using a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare. These documents allow you to say, in your own words, what type of medical care you would like to receive in critical situations, and who will speak on your behalf to direct your medical care if you are unable to speak for yourself. These are deeply personal decisions, and for most of our congregants they are informed by their faith. Because of this, I think the church is the best place for individuals to consider these decisions. 

In most states, these two documents can be created without requiring an attorney. In the church that I attend, we have regular workshops where members discuss what they want in end-of-life or critical care, and then members complete the documents.  

Aside from the healthcare issues in estate planning, I think the church can play a role as well in helping members think through the financial legacy they want to leave. When I served as a pastor, I felt very comfortable saying to my congregants, ‘You have lived a life as a generous steward of all that God has given you. When you make your estate plan, think about your final act of stewardship and what organizations or causes you might want to bless with your estate.’ I never felt like I was trying to manipulate people to leave money for the church — though they often did; rather, I found that people were grateful to be reminded that they could leave a legacy.

Kim: Absolutely; churches can work with members to bring awareness to the importance of estate planning and to provide basic education about its benefits. It’ll further strengthen the church’s bond with the member and solidify its image of being a trusted resource that looks out for the member’s family needs.

Nass: Definitely. Death and disability are things we often avoid thinking about, and yet these can happen to any of us at any time. Helping the congregation prepare for unforeseen events and reaffirming the need to have a plan is an important advocacy role.

In addition to advocation for estate planning, the church can also play a role in organizing educational opportunities for the congregation. Estate planning is often left to an attorney; while attorney input is important, there are other considerations that often go unaddressed, including pastoral counseling related to the emotional aspects of death and disability.   

In addition, there are moral and ethical issues that can arise when considering an estate plan. 

Also, many estate plans involve issues of stewardship and charitable giving that the church might be uniquely qualified to address. In doing so, church leaders not only help congregants provide for the well-being of loved ones, they also help them with legacy planning considerations, allowing members to be better stewards of their resources and create opportunities for members to be intentional in using resources to support Christian values.    

We’ve covered a lot of territory. As financial planners, what are the most important things a ministry leader should know about estate planning?  

Kim: That it applies to everyone!

Parizianu: An estate plan preserves your legacy by formally recording your wishes and desires. According to the scripture 1 Timothy 5:8 — God wants us to provide for our households and for our relatives.

Early planning provides peace of mind knowing that your family is protected and provided for; you have lifetime security; and the plan is in sync with your goals for family and charity.

Nass: I’d say that given the importance of an estate plan, it’s often wise to work with a licensed attorney that primarily focuses on estate planning, and a tax preparer. A good estate plan will address a number of potential scenarios related to disability and death and should include a will, power of attorney to manage your affairs if you become disabled, and healthcare directives.   

Other aspects of estate planning include reviewing beneficiary designations and also discussing the plan with your spouse, significant other, and adult children if appropriate.  

Once your estate plan is executed, you’ll want to review the plan every few years to ensure significant life events (for example: marriage, divorce, births, deaths) have been incorporated into the plan.   

Estate planning is not so much a one-off event as it is an ongoing process that requires revisiting as we move through life’s various stages.

Rev. Cook: I think it begins with understanding the elements of an estate plan; that would include naming a Power of Attorney for your financial life, executing an Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare Power of attorney, and of course, having a current will and any necessary trusts.  

Because pastors are engaged with church members at critical times in their lives, I think it is a ministry to ask congregants, ‘Do you have an estate plan?’ If they don’t, helping them understand not only why it is important for them, but that it’s a gift to those who love them to have their desires and intentions clearly spelled out. 

If no planning has been done, there’s always some initial inertia that has to be overcome. So it can be helpful as a pastor to get to know a couple of estate planning attorneys in your area that you trust and to whom you can refer congregants.

Likewise, for our ministry leaders: if you were consulting your peers, what are the most important pieces of advice you’d impart surrounding estate planning?

Rev. Yenn-Batah: Don’t be afraid to ask questions of trusted people. I think it’s scary to talk about death, but we have to become comfortable with it. The people we love will be better off because of it.

When we don’t plan, we’re giving away our right to choose. Our autonomy. Our ability to ensure that our values are lived out beyond us and that our legacy will make a difference. 

Rev. Noll: Look at estate planning from a mature perspective. In other words, don’t live in fear of what might happen to you, but don’t overlook the importance of preparing today for tomorrow. It’s easier to make choices now while you might have some room to do so than to wait until you or your loved ones are forced to. 

Also, don’t try to figure estate planning out on your own. Reach out to people who are trained and who you trust to help in view of your own values and assets.

Rev. Noll and Rev. Yenn-Batah: do you feel confident that your own estate planning affairs are now in order?

Rev. Noll: Yes, I’m confident that my own estate planning affairs are in order to the best of my ability at this time. 

Yenn-Batah: Somewhat. I think financial wellness and estate planning go hand and hand. Our family is on the journey to financial wellness. I will feel most confident when our family is financially healthy.

However, I will be less worried when we have the necessary documentation in place. 

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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