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Good Pastoral Care Includes Hard Questions
By James G. Mentzer D’99

Do you have a will?” 

It is a simple question, yet not asking it was perhaps the worst pastoral counseling decision I ever made.

Mentzer

Early in my ministerial career, one of the members of my congregation was diagnosed with cancer. As he and his medical team aggressively fought the disease, I offered all the pastoral care and support I knew as a wet-behind-the-ears pastor. Yet during my parishioner’s many months of treatments and declining health, I never stopped to think like the financial planner I had been before entering ministry. I never asked about the status of his financial affairs. To be honest, I felt that this successful business person surely had his estate plan in order. Little did I know!

Despite all that modern medicine and faithful prayer could do, the church member died. It was only after the memorial service was over and all the guests had stopped coming to visit that I learned from his widow that he had died without a will—in legal terminology, “intestate.” 

Actually, the phrase “dies without a will” is a misnomer, because the laws of North Carolina, like every other state, mandate what happens in such situations. In short order, the grieving widow learned of the troubles ahead. Among other things, state law dictated that her husband’s estate be divided between her and their children. In this case, the widow received one-third of the family home, plus the first $30,000 of her husband’s personal property, and then one-third of the remaining personal property. The remainder would be divided between two adult step-daughters. To satisfy the demands of state law, the widow was forced to sell her home.

To make matters worse, she also learned too late that the beneficiary designations of all the pension plans and life insurance named only the two daughters. She was left without any of these assets, but with responsibility for paying her late husband’s lingering medical bills.

Many pastors will challenge the assertion that asking a church member if she or he has a will is a pastoral care issue. They argue that it’s not the pastor’s place to inquire about financial affairs, especially during a terminal illness like cancer. There was a time when I might have been tempted to agree, but the agony this widow experienced for months after the funeral has convinced me to think differently. One simple question could have helped prevent months of financial distress.

Such stories could easily have better endings. Yet recent national studies suggest that 45 to 60 percent of Americans do not have wills, and almost as many have inappropriate beneficiary designations for life insurance contracts and pension plans. These are lapses that can be quickly and simply remedied by requesting a beneficiary change form for pension plans and insurance policies.

Creating an estate plan sounds hard. Yet it’s nothing more than determining what your wishes are for assets during your lifetime, and at death, and then creating the necessary documents. For example, a basic will leaving all one’s assets to a surviving spouse, plus the attendant power-of-attorney documents, can be drafted for under $500 by a competent attorney, perhaps even less if the attorney is also a church member. That might sound like a lot of money, but it’s a small sum for peace of mind.

This article represents the personal views of the author and should not be considered either professional tax or legal advice. If you have questions concerning your own situation, you are encouraged to consult your personal advisors. Got a general question dealing with financial planning? E-mail Mentzer at magazine@div.duke.edu.