How to Name a Charity in a Will

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When planning an estate, many people want to leave something for their favorite charity or cause. Probate law -- the rules regarding the management and distribution of a decedent’s estate -- offers many different options to support charitable causes. You can donate assets without conditions or you can donate property in a way that ensures that it is used exclusively as you want it. Probate law is defined by the state where you are a resident, so the requirements for executing a charitable bequest may vary.

Unrestricted or Restricted

There are two general ways you can leave money to charity. The first is without any restrictions. To make an unrestricted gift, you would write in the will that you donate a cash amount, asset or percentage of your overall estate to the charity. The second method is a restricted gift, which is subject to a condition. To make a restricted gift, you would use the same language in the will as with an unrestricted gift, but add that the property must be used for a specific purpose. You would then add whatever conditions or restrictions you want associated with the gift. Common restrictions include limiting the gift to a certain use or prohibiting the gift from being used in a certain way.

Residual Estate

Another common way to make a gift is by promising a charity the residual estate. Using this strategy, you make specific gifts to your relatives and other beneficiaries, and whatever remains goes to the charity. This method ensures that your charitable gifts do not affect what your other beneficiaries receive. You can also make a contingent gift of the residual estate. This is done by saying that the charity gets the residual estate only if something occurs. Generally, a contingent donation of the residual estate is made when the drafter has a spouse. The will would grant the spouse the residual estate, but if the spouse dies before the person writing the will, the residual estate would go to the charity.

Testamentary Charitable Trusts

A testamentary charitable trust is a device that allows the drafter of a will to support both his beneficiaries and favorite charity. To create such a trust, the will provides that when the drafter dies some of his property would go to fund a trust. The will must identify the beneficiaries of the trust and the person to act as trustee and manage the trust asset. Either for a period of years or for the duration of the beneficiaries’ life, the individual beneficiaries would get the benefit of the trust assets. Once that time passes, the will must state that whatever remains of the trust goes to the charity.

Cy Pres

If a gift is made to a charity that no longer exists, the "cy pres" doctrine states that the assets that was supposed to go the defunct charity goes to another organization that has the closest purpose to the original association. So if someone left money to cancer research but cancer had been cured, then the money in the will would go to researching another disease. The cy pres doctrine is not applied in every state. In some states, if the charity is defunct, its gift is redistributed amongst the other beneficiaries. In other states, if the will shows a general desire to donate to charity and not just donate to that specific charity, cy pres will be applied.


About the Author

John Cromwell specializes in financial, legal and small business issues. Cromwell holds a bachelor's and master's degree in accounting, as well as a Juris Doctor. He is currently a co-founder of two businesses.