Christianity was illegal in the early Roman Empire, so Christians could not make bequests to their churches. Emperor Constantine I legalized bequests to churches in 321 A.D. From the late Roman Empire to the modern era, individual Christians have left bequests in their wills and other estate planning documents, helping to provide for the support of clergy, church buildings, religious charities for the poor, and church-run schools, orphanages, hospitals, universities and other institutions. Many of the organizations funded by these earlier gifts are still in existence today.
These days, American Christians give less than 1 percent of their annual earnings to religious and charitable causes, according to an analysis of Christian donation patterns, "Passing the Plate." Some churches have responded to this trend by creating simple instructions for members on how to bequeath money and assets to churches, placing the information within church webpages, reports, newsletters and articles.
Ask Your Church
You can start creating your church bequest by asking your church for its specific bequest information. Your church's bequest materials might contain a few sentences that you can put in your will or living trust, stating your intention to give money or assets to your church and identifying the projects within your church that you wish the money or assets to be spent on. If you are uncertain about which church project might benefit most from your gift, consult your priest or minister.
If the process of preparing a will or living trust and then adding a church bequest feels complicated, you may be able to call upon others in the same situation for support. The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City has a "Legacy Society," which provides connections and advice for church members wanting to leave bequests to that church. If your church has no formal bequest information packets, you can ask your minister or priest to set up a group in which potential donors can work together to create bequest language appropriate for your church's specific needs. An estate-planning expert or a third-party legal document service might also be able to assist you with making bequests to your church.