If You Will It: Be Sure to Double Check the Name

A fascinating story ran in the Israeli newspapers last week about a couple named Kurt and Julia Nassau who left a bequest of $700,000 to the Israel Symphony Orchestra. The only problem is there is no such orchestra in Israel. There is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and there is an Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, but there is no Israel Symphony Orchestra! The issue is now before the New Jersey Supreme Court, which will decide what to do with the bequest.

Friends of the deceased couple surmise that the Nassau’s most likely intended the money to go to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel’s leading symphony, and not the much lesser-known Rishon LeZion orchestra, and that they merely made a mistake with the name when drafting their will. On the other hand, the people in Rishon LeZion are making the case that the couple must have meant them because of the similarity in the name. The case will be heard on December 13th and a ruling by the court will be issued soon after.

The real question is: What do we learn from this case of similar names?

When a bequest is left to an organization and the will is written, it is very important for the donor to confirm the name of the organization. Although the person may think they know the official name of the organization, it is best to clarify this with the director or the office staff of the organization. It probably would be wise to have the lawyer that is drawing up the will also check with the appropriate government office where the organization is officially registered to confirm the name of the nonprofit. This way there will be consistency between the organization’s name and that it is written in the will in the same way it is registered with the local authorities.

It is also appropriate to inform the organization that it has been named in the will and subsequently send them an official notification of their being a recipient of the bequest. After the organization has been notified, the CEO or the President can confirm the official name so there are no mistakes when it comes time to execute the will. Informing the organization in advance can avoid problems like what is happening between the two orchestras in Israel.

In addition to the legal reasons for confirming the exact name of the recipient organization named in a will, there is also an added value to making the bequest known during the donors’ life-time. Organizations are thrilled to know they are being included in a will and most would be happy to acknowledge the forthcoming donation and honor the donors. Many donors might want to give anonymously and, of course, this should be respected. At the same time, a donor’s decision to leave a bequest can have a very positive impact on other supporters of the organization.

Soliciting bequests is often perceived as one of the hardest “sells” in the world of financial resource development. Often we feel uncomfortable discussing what a person will do with their resources at the end of their life. Given the natural fear of death that many of us have, we are reluctant to discuss what decisions a philanthropic minded person has made in the will that has been written. Our sense is that this is a very personal issue that is discussed with one’s spouse, close family members and/or a lawyer. Do we really have a “right” to interject our views on how one disposes of their assets at the end of their life?

When a professional or volunteer leader has a close working relationship with a donor it is entirely appropriate to raise the issue of establishing a bequest for the organization. In addition, raising the subject in a sensitive way can lead to a meaningful discussion that can be helpful to the donor. Our reluctance to engage donors in this conversation results in a lost opportunity that could just as easily become a seized opportunity that would benefit both the donor and the organization.

Once the donor decides to make the bequest the decision can be shared (with permission) with other potential donors. The act of setting up the bequest can be an inspiration to other supporters of the organization. The professionals and volunteers involved in soliciting bequests can leverage one donation to encourage other donors to take the same meaningful step and set up a bequest for the nonprofit organization.

There are several ways of looking at bequests. It is a financial instrument to provide continuing support for an organization’s programs and services. It can also be viewed as a way of guaranteeing an annual campaign gift to the organization’s unrestricted funds, eg. The Jewish Federations of North America’s “Perpetual Annual Campaign Endowment”. When done appropriately, setting up a bequest enables the donor to decide the best use of his or her resources in the future.

Whether we are on the staff of the organization or one of the volunteer leaders, we should strive to overcome our ambivalent feelings about discussing a bequest with a donor. Once we accomplish this we can provide donors with a valuable service. And we can learn from the curious incident of the Nassau’s and be sure to double check the organization’s name on the will before it leads to a contentious court case. I’m sure this philanthropic-minded couple never expected their act of generosity to cause so much animosity between two classical orchestras. We can only hope the New Jersey Supreme Court finds a way to honor the original bequest and to memorialize their good names.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.