The Stewardship of Final Affairs, Part 1

The Christian is called to a life of stewardship. All of one’s life, all of one’s talents, all of one’s time and all of one’s material things come from and belong to God. It is both prudent and biblical to plan for one’s future.

As one who has received difficult medical news—“I’m sorry to say this, but you have cancer”—I identify with Hezekiah:

In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.’” Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. (2 Kings 20:1-3)

“Set your house in order”: Final affair planning is just this—setting one’s house in order!

Obviously the absolutely most important “order”—and this is so very important!—is to be right with the Lord.  The purpose of this brief article is not to explore this in detail, but the theme of the Book of Romans is “the righteousness of God” and how an unrighteous sinner may have that righteousness. That righteousness comes by faith as is so clear from the Scriptures: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (Romans 4:3). Jesus, Whose very name means YHWY is salvation (Matthew 1:20-22), is the answer:

“whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-27).

Intestate or Testate?

To “die intestate” means to die without a will. To “die testate” means to die with a will.

A will is simply a legally binding document that expresses the wishes of the deceased with regard to his assets. As previously stated, the Christian’s assets really belong to the Lord and the Christian is simply a steward of those assets.

Perhaps surprisingly, a will is not always necessary. My thesis is that having a will is the better option than not having a will and I hope to make my case in this section.

A will is not necessary when certain assets can be passed through the beneficiary route:1

  • life insurance proceeds
  • real estate, bank accounts, and other assets held in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety, or community property with right of survivorship
  • property held in a living trust
  • funds in an IRA, 401(k), or retirement plan for which a beneficiary was named
  • funds in a payable-on-death (POD) bank account
  • stocks or other securities held in a transfer-on-death (TOD) account, and
  • real estate or vehicles held with a transfer-on-death (TOD) deed or title document.

Examples of the beneficiary route:

  1. In the Jim Peet household, my house in Plymouth Minnesota is owned in joint tenancy with my spouse. Upon my death, Kathleen will be the sole owner of the home.
  2. I have 2 IRAs: one resulting from my 16 years as a pastor, the other as a result of 20 years with Wells Fargo (upon retirement I moved all of my 401K assets to an IRA). Kathee is the beneficiary of both IRAs. Upon my death, those assets will become hers.
  3. My dear Mother, who passed away just several months ago in her 96th year, purchased a life insurance policy before Pearl Harbor and before her marriage. (The policy document itself is something to behold and a family keepsake!). Several years ago, my sister investigated this policy and discovered that our deceased father was still listed as the beneficiary. Working with our mother, she was able to change the beneficiaries to me and my siblings. Upon my mother’s death, the proceeds of this policy were divided three ways to us.

An important note about the beneficiary route: The beneficiary route trumps the will! A Wall Street Journal article notes this:2

When the account owner dies, the assets go directly to the beneficiaries named on the accounts, bypassing the sometimes long and costly probate process. The problem: Because these beneficiary designations override your will.

Sadly there can be a disconnect between the beneficiary designation and one’s will. Just this year I’ve been made aware of an example of this: A man died naming one sister as a beneficiary, while his will named three siblings. Such cases cause quite a bit of grief to heirs and can be a major source of strife.

When is a will required?  A will is required at least in these cases:

  • When property is not held in joint tenancy. An example would be when a surviving spouse passes and the property is held in single tenancy.
  • When children are involved and guardianship will need to be determined.

We have had three iterations of wills. It should be noted that for a married couple, both the husband and wife should have a will. When something major changes (e.g. the birth of a child), the will should be revisited. Our three rounds:

  1. Shortly after the birth of our first son (1980), we had a local attorney draft wills for us and we assigned guardianship to a couple whom we deemed best suited to raise our son.
  2. When our third child was 16 or 17, and Kathee and I were preparing for a long trip. We realized that will #1 was hopelessly out of date. I bought a will-maker product and produced the will. We engaged a notary to notarize the will in the presence of witnesses.
  3. We had a legal benefit though work called ARAG.3 We used that benefit to have wills, durable power of attorneys, and health care directives created.

Should one have a will? Perhaps you will remember the old Fram oil filter ads with the catch phrase: “pay me now or pay me later”?4 In my mind having a will accomplishes at least these things:

  • The planning demonstrates stewardship.
  • The planning is really for the benefit of one’s heirs—it simplifies their lives.
  • The planning expedites the estate process. Probate is time consuming (for example up to 2 years in Massachusetts).5
  • Often dying intestate requires the very expensive services of an attorney!

A helpful article is “What happens if I die without a will?”6 For an extreme example of this consider the case of “Prince.”7 Dying without a will requires the probate court to determine beneficiaries and guardians for minor children.

One common objection to will creation is the expense involved. Anymore this really is not the case. There are online resources such as Legalzoom8 that enable the creation of a will for under $100.

One advantage of the beneficiary designation distribution option is that beneficiaries are relatively easy to change. It typically involves downloading a form, completing the form, having the form witnessed and sending it back in. So beneficiaries are easy to change, wills less so. This is an important point!

Beyond the scope of this article is the Living Trust.9 It would be wise for some with large estates to consider this option as well. 

My mother died this past March. It is my privilege to serve as an executor of her estate. Mom’s loving final legacy is that she made things very easy for her children. She had three important documents: a will, a health care directive, and a durable power of attorney. Mom did something that was unnecessary and not recommended: she named all three children as tri-executors. As it turned out, while unnecessary, we have joyously worked together as executors. One of the first things we did was have two copies of The Executor’s Guide: Settling a Loved One’s Estate or Trust10 shipped to my sister’s house (which served as funeral and estate central for several weeks). This book has served as an invaluable resource and really a step by step guide for settling Mom’s estate. In short order all of her assets were distributed and as we stand today we have but one final task—Mom’s taxes for 2016. Everything is on track for having this completed by March of 2017.

(Next: Advance Directives, Durable Power of Attorney, Preplanned Funerals, Executors.)

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There are 13 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks, Jim.  This is excellent advice.

G. N. Barkman

JohnBrian's picture

Christian parents with 8 adult children had a will and a life insurance policy.

The will specified that each child was to receive a small amount, but was amended within the year prior to both parents passing away (within hours of each other). The amendment took the money away from the children and gave it to 2 Christian ministries, leaving the children with zero inheritance.

The life insurance policy listed all the children as beneficiaries, and since the value of the policy was small, each child received less than they would have received from the original will.

The executor sent letters to the children demanding they turn over the life insurance proceeds to the estate, claiming that the father's change to the will, overrode the beneficiary designation of the life insurance policy. Some of the 8 complied and others refused.

Having known the family for many years, it was not surprising to hear that the father had in death placed ministry above his children, as that had been the practice of his life.

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Bert Perry's picture

...that I've gotten from my grandparents is that they gave me most of my inheritance before they died (not at my request, I was ten and didn't care when they did it) so they would have more influence in how I was raised.  It was a parcel of land that would have put them over the estate tax limits at the time (I've got my step-granddad's estate tax filings, actually), and it put me through college and helped my buy my first house.  Really, as I remember the antics of the "trust funders" in college and as I observe the antics of those inheriting huge sums through no virtue of their own, I am extremely grateful they used this as an opportunity to guide me.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

I have a biblical will. 50% of my net worth will pass to my first born. The rest will be divided amongst her 3 siblings.

I foresee no problems with this arrangement.

TOvermiller's picture

Thank you for providing this helpful perspective, Jim. How many dear brothers and sisters in Christ have looked at Matthew 6:34 in their KJV Bible and concluded they should make no future plans at all? 

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

I've wrestled with this here. My conclusion? Preparing for the future is responsible faith. Worrying about the future is not faith at all.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor |
Blog |

G. N. Barkman's picture

I thought the Biblical model would result in 40% to the firstborn, with 20% each to the younger three?

G. N. Barkman

TOvermiller's picture

We should also consider locking up our will and other key documents in a safe. If a younger sibling steals any of the documents, this can cause very awkward family situations. This happened to Isaac.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor |
Blog |

Jim's picture

Should We Leave Our Children Inheritances?:

Scripture says that “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). As a result, many Christians defend and justify leaving vast sums of wealth to their children and grandchildren. I think in order to understand the principle behind this verse, we need to compare what an inheritance meant in biblical times, versus what an inheritance means in this culture today. 

In Old Testament times, passing on ownership of the land to children and grandchildren was vital. Without it, succeeding generations couldn’t do their farming or raise livestock. Many people lived at a subsistence level. Most were too poor to buy land. With no inheritance they could end up enslaved or unable to care for their parents and grandparents, who normally lived on the property with them until they died.

Today in America, however, things are very different. Inheritances are usually windfalls coming to people who live separately from their parents, have their own careers, are financially independent, and already have more than they need. Most often they aren’t carrying on the family business, or if they are, they don’t need a windfall in order to continue doing so. They have dependable sources of income generated by their own work, skills, saving, and investing. When such people inherit a farm, house, or other real estate, what becomes of it? Typically, they liquidate the asset or use it as a further source of income. They do not need the land or the money. Having it will simply mean increasing their standard of living, sometimes dramatically.

Those who cite Scripture to prove that parents should leave an inheritance to children typically do not follow Scripture’s guidelines of leaving to sons only, a double portion to the firstborn, and so on. Hebrew firstborn sons were legally entitled to a double portion of inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). If a man died without sons, the inheritance went to his daughters, if no daughters to his brothers, if no brothers to his nearest relatives (Numbers 27:1-11). Ultimately land could not be lost to a family line, as it reverted to them in the year of Jubilee, when all debts were canceled.

It seems inconsistent to say that an inheritance should be left because the Bible says so but then to turn around and do it very differently than the Bible explains. A better approach is to understand the reasons for inheritance, then see these not as rules to be legalistically obeyed but as underlying principles that we should weigh.

Comment: Not my view but could be a good discussion point!

T Howard's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

I thought the Biblical model would result in 40% to the firstborn, with 20% each to the younger three?

I gave her an extra 10% to care for my wife. Wink

Jim's picture

At the very least:

  • One must make provision for a widowed wife AND
  • Minor children AND
  • Adult children with disabilities

Life insurance is the best avenue for this:

  • Term is the most reasonable
  • Buy if while you are young for best rate

Example: See Selectquote $ 250,000 coverage for $ 15 per month (young, healthy male)


Kathee and I no longer have life insurance (we did for years), because all we will need at the end is burial expenses 

kirkedoyle's picture

Jim, thank you for highlighting this important topic.  I've been in the financial industry for 15 years and I can't agree more that a little bit of end of life planning goes a long way.  I had a client whose will and stated intentions directed that all 3 of her sons would split her assets equally.  When she had opened accounts with our financial institution, though, she had assigned each son as POD to one of the accounts.  When she passed one of the accounts had 4 times the balance that the others did.  That son could have said "tough luck" to his brothers.  Thankfully, they were close and agreed to distribute the funds evenly.  


I would also strongly encourage people to add the person they have named as executor to at least one of their accounts.  This allows access to some funds to cover some of the upfront costs that may arise.


Regarding the executor - it's important that the person you are naming your executor is aware of and willing to accept that responsibility.  It can be a time-consuming process.  Take them out for lunch and go over the details of all the accounts/policies that you have.  You don't have to give details, just let them know where to find it!


I hope I didn't jump out ahead of you, Jim!  I'm looking forward to what your experiences have taught you that I can apply to my own life, and to my clients!  I assume you may talk about trust options which could be a potential solution to the Alcorn quote above!

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