Many effective altruists will be interested in leaving some of their money to cost-effective charities when they die. In fact (2015 update!) Charity Science now has a simple form to make a will leaving money to GiveWell's recommended charities and they'll help you write your will for free. I’ve also written the following guide to explain how to do so. It walks you through writing a will from start to finish; I’ve based it on my own experience when I first did this a few years ago (with a lawyer’s help), plus some additional research to cover people from the US, Canada and Switzerland. I hope that you will find it helpful - if you do, I’d love to hear from you! If you have any other helpful tips on this subject, do leave them in the comments section.
It’s worth noting that, even leaving aside the fact that you may want to bequeath some of your money to charity, writing a will is a prudent thing to do. If you die without one, your assets will be distributed according to the law of your country rather than according to your own wishes. This could, for example, mean that your partner gets nothing if you’re not married or in a civil partnership. That’s worth avoiding.
Just a few of the other reasons to take the time to write a will include:
- Reducing the inheritance tax incurred - leaving money to charity being an excellent way to do so.
- Making provision for your children if you have any, for example by choosing who will take care of them and setting aside funds for this.
- Making any other necessary provisions, such as for your pets, or your business, or other responsibilities that you have.
- Specifying what sort of funeral you would like, which will spare your family from having to make the decision.
- Declaring that you would like your organs donated, and/or your body donated to science. Be sure to tell your next of kin about this in case it comes up unexpectedly.
- Naming your executors (family members are a standard choice).
Step one: decide how much you want to leave to charity
The main choice here is whether you want to bequeath a fixed amount to your chosen charities, or else first make provision for your near and dear and then leave the remainder. If you go for the first option, you simply need to add a clause to your will specifying the amount and the charity or charities that you pick. If you pick the second option, you’ll need to add a clause like the following at the end of your will:
"MY TRUSTEES shall stand possessed of the residue of the said monies and of such of my estate as remains for the time being unsold UPON TRUST for [insert the charity that you pick], AND I DECLARE that the receipt of the Treasurer or other proper Officer for the time being of the aforesaid body shall be a good and sufficient discharge to my Trustees in respect of the same."
Here, “the residue of the said monies” means the money that is left over after the provisions made in previous clauses. For example, if you want to leave your personal effects and the first £25,000 of your savings to a relative before giving the remainder to charity, you would first have your will state this, and afterwards add a clause like the above. The exact language comes from my own will, so has legal language appropriate to the UK; as I explain below, you should ensure that the language you use is appropriate in your jurisdiction.
Step two: pick a method for writing your will
One of the reasons why so many people die intestate every year is that they don’t realise how easy writing a will really is unless your financial affairs or wishes are unusually complex. In most countries it is possible to do it yourself by using a template, although you should be aware that using a lawyer is the safest option as it will ensure that your will is valid.
If you decide to make a DIY will, you’ll want to find a template that is appropriate for your jurisdiction. Americans can start by searching this list at Docracy, an open collection of sample legal documents. Brits can find free templates at compactlaw.co.uk, or buy a cheap DIY kit from WH Smith. Canadians can use this guide.
If like me you’re from the UK, there are several schemes which let you make a will with a lawyer for free. Every November many solicitors participate in ‘WillAid’, which is a free service in exchange for which they suggest you make a donation of about £100 to charity - an offer which should appeal to EAs! Similarly, each September Scottish residents can get a will through Will Relief Scotland in exchange for a donation to a global poverty charity. And if you’re 55 or over you can also take advantage of the Free Wills Month scheme in October.
A final alternative is to pay a lawyer to make a will for you. Here, searching for a cheap online lawyer is a good approach. Right now, affordable options in the UK are quickonlinewills.com and glosslegal.co.uk. Americans can use legalmatch.com’s search facility. Canadians can find a lawyer through the Law Society in their province.
Step three: consider inheritance tax
In most countries leaving money to charity will reduce the inheritance tax payable. For example, in the US gifts to charities are exempt from federal wealth transfer taxes, gift and estate taxes, and appear to be exempt from state taxes. In the UK a charitable legacy it will be deducted from your estate before the amount of inheritance tax is calculated, and if you leave over 10% of your estate’s net value to charity, any part of your estate that is subject to inheritance tax will be taxed at 36% rather than 40%.
Step four: pick your charities and find out how to leave money to them
You’ll need to specify your chosen charity or charities. Note that only charities that are tax-deductible in your country will entitle you to inheritance tax breaks. I’ve made a webpage which lets you find these by selecting your charity and then following the resultant links.
Rather than specifying one particular charity, effective altruists may wish to bequeath money to whatever charities GiveWell considers most effective at the time they die (the examples I’ve focused on in this guide). In the US, you can do this by leaving the money to GiveWell, earmarked for regranting to its recommended charities. They would then follow their recommended split across their top charities, just as they do when people donate via them for regranting. This is the split which they think does the most good, taking into account charities’ room for more funding and other factors. It’s the path I’ve taken after talking to GiveWell employees about this, and one I’d recommend for others.
Either way - and especially if you've specified an end charity rather than GiveWell, which is likely to stay in existence - it is a good idea to name fallbacks in case your beneficiaries aren't around when you end your days. You can name particular charities, but as a final fallback you should at least give disbursement instructions that your executors can follow whatever charities are around. Here is the flexible language that my solicitor advised me to include in my will, having told my executors (my immediate family) my wishes without having to put these into legally binding language:
But if the trusts hereinbefore declared shall fail or determine then and in that event my Trustees shall stand possessed of the said residue of my estate UPON TRUST to transfer pay or apply the same to or for such exclusively charitable institution or purpose or exclusively charitable institutions or purposes and if more than one in such proportions as my Trustees may in their absolute discretion select.
Here are some specific instructions for this step for people in living in the countries below:
Americans can leave money to GiveWell for regranting directly, leaving the money “to GiveWell (Employer Identification Number: 20-8625442), earmarked for regranting to its recommended charities”. Bequests require only stating the amount and naming the beneficiary, as in this sample wording.
Canadians can donate to proven global charities via Charity Science, the organisation that I work with, leaving the money “to Charity Science (charity number: 80963 6236 RR0001) of Vancouver, BC". You can specify which charities you would like us to route your money to, and can discuss this with us by emailing email@example.com
You can bequeath money to GiveWell’s recommended charities in the UK via the Giving What We Can Trust, with language like the following, from my own will:
“MY TRUSTEES shall stand possessed of the residue of the said monies and of such of my estate as remains for the time being unsold UPON TRUST for the Giving What We Can Trust (Registered Charity Number: 1155773) of 6 Temple Mews, 6 Temple Road, Cowley, Oxford, OX4 2DY earmarked for GiveWell for regranting to GiveWell's recommended global poverty charities, at GiveWell's discretion, AND I DECLARE that the receipt of the Treasurer or other proper Officer for the time being of the aforesaid body shall be a good and sufficient discharge to my Trustees in respect of the same”
Alternatively you can leave money to the Giving What We Can Trust directly and specify the charities to which it should be routed in an alternative way, such as following the Trust’s default split (25% each to the charities that Giving What We Can recommends: AMF, SCI, Deworm the World and Project Healthy Children).
Switzerland and Germany
Swiss and German taxpayers can donate to GiveWell-recommended charities tax-efficiently via GBS Schweiz (one of the Swiss EA organisations). Instructions can be found here, and if you wish to bequeath money via GBS you can contact them about this here. They hope that this will soon be possible for Austrians too.
Step five: make your will
Now that you’ve made the key decisions you can make your will via the method you picked in step two. You will need to sign and date it with witnesses, who will also need to sign it - in the UK, you need two witnesses, neither of whom can be beneficiaries. You’ll then simply need to follow the requirements for storing it that apply in your country. Wills are often stored by solicitors, although in many countries you can instead keep a copy in a safe place at home. Either way, be sure to tell the executors that you’ve named in your will where it is stored.
...and that’s it
Armed with the above guide, you should now be able to write your own will, and - if you choose to do so - leave some of your money to the very best charities out there. Morbid though the topic inevitably is, I hope that some of you will find this helpful! If you use the guide or have any suggested additions to it then I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks to Therese Gjønnes, Jonas Vollmer, George McGowan and Peter Hurford for answers and feedback which helped me write this guide.