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Can religious traditions be preserved in Seattle estate plans?

The Seattle area hosts a diverse population representing a wide variety of religious backgrounds. As upcoming generations face increasing exposure to a range of ideologies, parents may encounter concerns that their spiritual traditions will not be carried on by their children.

A simple and effective estate plan can help perpetuate religious traditions by clarifying end-of-life wishes. Yet, it is important to recognize that religious considerations in instruments such as wills and trusts can have unintended consequences when they affect the distribution of estate assets.

Estate planning instruments such as living wills, directives to physicians, and powers of attorney can be useful to make sure that religious beliefs and practices are respected in long-term care situations. Consultation between spiritual leaders and an estate planning professional can help ensure that end-of-life requests are heard and met.

Certain religious considerations after death, such as funeral arrangements and gifts to charities, may be appropriate instructions to include in a will. Directives pertaining to personal religious wishes will generally be upheld by the law as long as they are clear enough to avoid ambiguity about the testator's intent.

On the other hand, trying to use estate planning instruments to impose principles of religion upon heirs and beneficiaries can result in costly and acrimonious probate litigation. Although courts may uphold certain provisions -- for instance, a clause that disinherits children who marry outside the family faith -- the most enduring result may be exorbitant expenses to the estate and a harsh toll upon relationships between siblings.

Religion plays an important role in the lives of many King County residents. Thoughtful estate planning can help preserve religious identity at times when difficult choices need to be made by others. By contrast, Washingtonians wishing to impart religious beliefs to their children would do well to make that effort during their lifetimes, as well as consult an estate planning professional before attempting to impose religious requirements as a condition of inheritance.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Joining church and estate: passing on your religious beliefs to heirs can be a tricky business," Rachel Emma Silverman, April 30, 2012

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