Leaving Your Children an Inheritance – Rethinking the Issue

by Joe Plemon on August 12, 2011

In my post, “Should You Leave an Inheritance to Your Children?”, I concluded that giving some inheritance to my children while I am still alive is a good idea. While I haven’t totally changed those plans, Randy Alcorn’s book “Managing God’s Money”, has me rethinking this entire inheritance issue…again. The following thoughts are worth considering — or reconsidering:

What does the bible really say?

Most of us will readily quote Proverbs 13:22, “A good man will leave an inheritance for his children’s children.” as our proof text for leaving an inheritance. Seems clear enough…right? But Alcorn digs beneath the surface by pointing out that a typical inheritance in those days was the family farm: an absolute necessity (because the children couldn’t afford to buy that farm) for the ongoing livelihood of the heirs. Such is not the case in today’s world where most children have careers which are independent of whatever their parents may leave them. Today’s inheritance, therefore, does not sustain the beneficiary; it simply plops a windfall in his lap … much like winning a lottery.

Using the lottery analogy, perhaps Proverbs 20:21 “An inheritance gained at the beginning will not be blessed at the end” is more applicable than Proverbs 13:22 in today’s world.

What is best for the kids?

Alcorn points out (and I agree) that most inheritances – especially large ones — do more harm than good. After all, if our goal in raising our children is to teach them independence, dangling a windfall before them sends a contradictory message. Alcorn puts it this way, “How dare any of us, whether family, friends or government, allow our financial subsidies to deny the character building privilege and divine calling of a man to work hard to provide for his wife and children?

Wealthy men throughout the years have agreed that these windfalls do more harm than good.

  • Andrew Carnegie said, “The almighty dollar, bequeathed to a child is an almighty curse. No man has the right to handicap his son with the burden of great wealth. He must face this question squarely: Will my fortune be safe with my boy or will my boy be safe with my fortune?
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt said, “Inherited wealth is as certain death to ambition as cocaine is to morality.
  • Henry Ford stated, “Fortunes tend to self-destruction by destroying those who inherit them.”

Whose money is it anyway?

Lest we forget, we are talking about God’s money, not our own. So what does that have to do with inheritances? Alcorn poses this question: “What would you think if your money manager died and left all of your money to his children?” Obviously, we wouldn’t be very pleased. So the fact that we are leaving someone else’s money to our own children suddenly becomes quite relevant.

Even if we rationalize our thinking with, “Well, my children will use the money as God intends”, we have still missed the real point: God expects US to manage His money now…not delegate our responsibility to others when we die.

Are all inheritances wrong?

I think these principles need to be considered:

  • The money belongs to God, not us.
  • The greatest inheritance we can leave our children is spiritual, not monetary.
  • A financial inheritance large enough to compromise our children’s values is too large.

I see nothing wrong with leaving a small inheritance … enough, for example, to help our grandchildren through college. However, based on what Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Ford have to say, a large fortune will most likely be very destructive.

Janice and I hope to give as much as we are able to God’s work for as long as we are able. We will also consider funding specific needs our children may have, as long as we believe that doing so will motivate them toward excellence, NOT encourage apathy. For example, we helped cash flow college for two of our kids after they were in their thirties, and after they had given up their dreams of ever earning that diploma. Both graduated recently (with zero debt) and are quite enthused about their new teaching careers. In spite of our plans of generosity, I am sure that we will not spend every penny and that our children will some day divide an inheritance.   However, I am also sure that it will not be substantial.

Leaving a spiritual inheritance

In 390 A. D., John Chrysostom gave this advice to Christian parents, “If you want to leave much wealth to your children, leave them in God’s care. Do not leave them riches, but virtue and skill.

Chrysostom’s advice is my wish for my children. The greatest gift Jan and I can ever leave for our children is a deep spiritual heritage. Allow me to brag for just one moment: all four of our children have a passion for serving God and a love for their fellow man. All four of them have hearts for the underprivileged. They are generous, loving people whom we are very proud of.

Jan and I are blessed. We have the privilege of seeing our kids reap their inheritance while we are still living.

Readers: What inheritance plans are you making for your children?

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