Want to Make a Bequest?

The all-causes death rate is eventually 100%; as Terry Pratchett says, you haven't been around the place long before you realise that you arrived with your return ticket already punched. There will be a time when you're not here. You can't change it, and there's no point complaining about it, so you have to make plans to deal with it.

The first thing most people do is to make sure their dependants are provided for. Historically, that was the most difficult part, and the insurance industry grew up largely because men died young and often left their wife to bring up the children.

We live longer now, and that happens less, and most of us will live to see our children independent and established in their careers. We have options. We have time to reflect. We have assets on a scale that would have astounded our grandparents. We can provide for the future of all the things we care about - as a parent, as a friend, as a citizen, and as a member of a community.

Making a will is our last chance to interact with the world around us; to show what we think is important, to make up for the voluntary work we can no longer do, to contribute to the triumph of the causes we hold dear.

And another thing; it's a chance to do good that incurs absolutely no personal sacrifice. Think about it.

Making a will

Everybody should have a will. It lets you make your wishes known clearly and unambiguously and it cuts down the stress on those you leave behind.

Ideally, drop in and see a lawyer - it's worth the money to be sure that there are no problems. If you don't want to do that, get a will kit, or follow the advice here to get the format right.

Formats are all very well, but what's important is the content. You have to make sure you've provided for your dependants - the people who have claims on you (and in some cases the law will give them a cut even if you don't). You may also want to recognise your friends. Are there other people you want to be happy? You should pay your debts, of all kinds.

As well as all these personal bequests, another thing to consider is the work that you want to go on after - perhaps long after - you have left the earth.

What do you believe in? Who else is on your side? Would a gift help them go forward? If the answer is yes, think about making provision for it in your will.

Who to give to

It's entirely up to you which groups you remember in your will. In many European countries there are tight laws governing what you can do in your will, and in other countries there are inheritance taxes that mean the government will take a big chunk unless you follow certain rules. By comparison, Australia is liberty hall. There are really almost no restrictions on what you do with your estate.

You can leave your money to an established charity, but you don't have to .

It used to be very difficult to leave a bequest to an unincorporated association, which is just about as informal an association as you can get. However, most states of Australia* have now specifically introduced legislation to make that easier (though there are still possible complications, and this is one of those times when it may be worth bringing in a lawyer). Incorporated associations (and most medium-sized community groups are now incorporated) are even more straightforward.

You're certainly not restricted to giving only to charities, still less to tax-deductible charities (those with Deductible Gift Recipient, or DGR, status) - which is a good thing, because Australian law has a very restrictive definition of what constitutes a charity, and many organisations miss out unfairly. ( Of the 700,000 community and not-for-profit groups in Australia, only around 25,000 of them have been given DGR.)

You can put your support behind any group that you think is worthy, whether the tax office approves of it or not. Indeed, you may want to push some money to one of the groups that's not tax deductible and thus often misses out in ordinary fundraising. They really need the money, and you can be sure they'll be grateful.

Browse the list of community groups signed up through the GiveNow donations service to have a look at some of the great Australian groups that are working to achieve better communities for us all. You may be surprised at the range and diversity of groups out there.

If you're already giving to a group, think about how they might use a bequest. Use your common sense: pick a group that's well run and efficient. Look at its financial statements and annual reports, review its policies, ask about its achievements - kick the tyres. Decide if it's willing and able to do the things you want done.

Work your way through these Tips for Giving Wisely to guide your decision-making.

Once you have a group in mind, it's worth letting them know that you're thinking of a bequest - apart from allowing them to thank you while you're available, it gives them a chance to plan ahead.

This is one of the areas where you're going to have to take the initiative. Most of us are inhibited about discussing people's deaths with them, and community groups are no different. It's easier for us to admit that we're not going to live forever than it is for someone else to tell us.

Still, the only satisfaction we can get from our possessions beyond our lifespans is the pleasure we get in contemplating the good our contributions will do. It seems silly not to take advantage of the opportunity while we can. Make your will now, and leave something to a group you respect.

Your memory will live on in the gratitude of strangers. And that's a contribution that's worth making.

Learn more about remembering a community group in your will here:

  • Include a Charity (but remember, you don't have to give to a charity; search GiveNow for more great groups who are working to build a better world).

*As of early 2008 NSW, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Victoria have made the change; the ACT, South Australia, and Western Australia have agreed to make the change, but have yet to implement it.