Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

One of the themes we address on the podcast is retirement and how to not waste the retirement years. We have talked about end-of-life decisions as well, but very little about inheritances and wills. We’ll we do so today, initiated by a really important question that came from an anonymous woman. Here’s what she wrote: “Pastor John, thank you for this podcast! My husband and I are in our seventies, both working and healthy, by God’s kindness. Of course, we’re all terminal, as you know.

“Here’s my question: We own a property valued at nearly two million dollars. Additionally, we own investment properties that will fund our expenses when we can no longer bring in income. My question is about who will inherit our assets when we’re gone. We have three children. One does not follow the Lord, one is a believer who married a spouse who is not very serious about the things of God, and one is disabled with mental illness. Our first two children are materially fine. Currently, I’m inclined to leave the bulk of our assets to Christian ministries and invest in the kingdom of God, with a modest trust fund set up for our third child. How do you navigate this decision? The Bible says, ‘A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children’ (Proverbs 13:22). But I feel an opposite approach would be wiser here. Is it?”

Well, first let me say that I am answering this question right off of our front burner because we too are in our seventies — the same as you. And just a few weeks ago Noël and I sat down with two lawyers, one of our sons, and a financial counselor from a Christian agency and had a big powwow about wills, trusts, and medical directives, to try to get our house in order.

We have been thinking a lot. We got the green light from two of our sons to be willing to function as executors — they don’t call them executors anymore, amazingly. You know why? Because it’s a masculine word. Oh my goodness — personal representative is what they say now. Isn’t that unbelievable? Just unbelievable. All right, okay. That’s another podcast.

So we involved a Christian financial service that we trust to give us good counsel, and Noël and I have spent a lot of time thinking and praying about the issue of inheritance. That’s the first thing to say — it’s right off of our front burner.

Positioned to Bless

The second thing I want to do is give a brief comment about two biblical passages. First is the one you mentioned: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous” (Proverbs 13:22). I don’t think the point of this proverb is that a good man should, or has a duty to, leave an inheritance to his children and grandchildren, but that in general, a good man has the resources and the ability to do it. The point of this proverb is that his children and grandchildren will experience blessing because they had a good man for a father and a grandfather.

I don’t think it’s a command, but a blessing, because the contrast in the second half of the verse goes like this: “But the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” In other words, he thinks that — the wicked man, the sinner thinks — he’s accumulating wealth for himself and his heirs, but it’s not going to work out that way.

So, the point seems to be not that every person has a duty to leave an inheritance of any particular kind of material goods, but that the good person is in a position to do so, to bless his heirs, and the unrighteous man is not in a position to bless his heirs in the same way. Or to put it another way, children and grandchildren are blessed to have a righteous father and grandfather. Blessing will flow to them one way or the other, but not so the children of an unrighteous father.

Even that hope, I think, is only a typical proverbial generalization, because we know from the Bible that many ungodly people leave huge inheritances to their children, often to their ruin. For example, Psalm 17:13–14 says, “Deliver my soul . . . from men of the world whose portion is in this life. You fill their womb with treasure; they are satisfied with children, and they leave their abundance to their infants.”

“The righteous are in a position to leave a legacy, financial and otherwise, to their children and grandchildren.”

In other words, often, unrighteous people are very wealthy and leave lots of deadly money for their heirs. So some wicked men have great inheritances, but some righteous men are very poor. Proverbs 28:6: “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.” So, the point is that proverbs are generalizations, and in general, the righteous are in a position to leave a precious legacy, financial and otherwise, to their children and grandchildren.

Obligated to Save

Now, the other text I wanted to make a comment about — which she didn’t mention, but I think people will mention if they push into the Bible on this — is 2 Corinthians 12:14, where Paul thinks of himself as a parent to his churches and says, “For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.” Now the point, I think, is not about inheritances in that verse, because even if it were, the argument wouldn’t work because of the way he relates to his churches — he’s not going to die in order to be a blessing to the churches.

The point is that parents are to support their children while they are growing up. So, whether we leave inheritances to children, and how much we leave to our children, should be decided, I’m arguing, on the basis of wider biblical teachings rather than on the basis of that proverb or that passage in 2 Corinthians.

Five Factors to Consider

So, let me mention five things that Noël and I have taken into account that might also inform our friend who’s asking this question and maybe some others.

1. Be generous while you’re alive.

Be generous to your children while you are alive and while you can see how they are doing and what their needs are. For example, when my father died and left me some money — left me and my sister some money — Noël and I had a wonderful time taking a picture of my dad from an old photograph, putting it in a card, writing a special little message about his legacy and sending a lot of money to each of our kids. We surprised them with some thousands of dollars because we just didn’t need it. We didn’t need the money that daddy left us.

“While your children are alive, bear witness to the sufficiency of Jesus by being generous to them.”

So the point is, while your children are alive, bear witness to the sufficiency of Jesus by being generous to them according to their real needs rather than waiting for the blessing to come only when you’re gone.

2. Remember the dangers of wealth.

Be aware of the dangers of wealth for yourself and for your children. Jesus said very plainly, “Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Being rich is not necessarily a blessing. Far more often it is a curse. There are many legacies to leave children that are vastly more important than money. Be aware of that danger.

3. Beware when wealth comes easily.

This is especially true when wealth is gotten easily and quickly — for example, with inheritances. Proverbs 13:11: “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” Or Proverbs 20:21: “An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end” — in other words, as the prodigal son got all of his inheritance at once. “Give it to me, Dad.” Dad gives it to him, and he goes off and ruins his life with it. He wastes his whole life until God gets ahold of him. Not only is money dangerous, but money gotten quickly and easily is even more dangerous.

4. Designate actual dollar amounts.

Rather than leaving your entire estate open-ended to all of your offspring, consider picking an actual dollar amount. I’m not counting here actual things like furniture, or books, or some heirloom. I’m just talking about the actual cash, and leave a fixed amount to each son or daughter, and then leave all the rest to Christian ministries that you believe in.

This decision felt very freeing to Noël and me. We tried to decide what the house, and the car, and the saving accounts, if everything were liquidated, would be worth. Then we picked a number that each child would get — I think a significant, generous number, and yet a limited number that isn’t the totality of the estate. Everything else we’re going to leave to the National Christian Foundation. I presume you know about them. They distribute the money according to the way you want. It can go to your church. It can go to Desiring God. It can go to Bethlehem College & Seminary.

The reason it’s so much easier to leave your residual amounts to a foundation like that is because to change your will is difficult if you specify the ministries in your will, whereas I can get on the phone and within a minute change the place that the money will go out from the National Christian Foundation. So just a hint, if you decide to leave large amounts of money to Christian ministries, there’s an easy way to do it without specifying those ministries in your will. I’m sure you’re far ahead of me on that kind of research.

5. Take thought for special needs.

Here’s the last thing: By all means take thought for special needs, especially children or grandchildren with disabilities or other difficulties that would make life harder for them. So special trust accounts and things like that are a beautiful Christian act of love, I think.

So those are the ways, some of them, that Noël and I have thought so far. We don’t claim to be perfect in this. But let me stress in closing, as I’m sure you already know, that vastly more important than any financial legacy is the legacy of biblical truth, and the glorious gospel of Christ, and a life showing the love of Christ.