Posted March 1st, 2012

What to Do When a Donor Dies?

In a frank look at the bequest settlement process from the nonprofit perspective, Sharpe Senior Consultant Aviva Shiff Boedecker shares insights from her experience as a planned giving executive. The purpose of this series of articles is to help those responsible for estate settlement plan for a proper response to a donor’s death and anticipate issues that may arise. The first of this multi-part series details what to do when you learn a donor has passed away.

The passing of donors is unfortunately an unavoidable part of the world of planned gift development. The death of a donor presents a variety of challenges, ranging from the personal, emotional response to matters of stewardship and the details and mechanics of receiving the gift. Issues range from insensitive comments from colleagues (“You must be really happy that Mrs. X died because now you can count her gift.”) to administrative confusion (such as how the database records the death and the gift), to relations with families, to legal questions.

Planning ahead

But the topic of how planned giving executives and other development staff should respond to the death, and how to handle the aftermath, is something that is rarely given the attention it deserves. Among other matters, when the donor dies, it is vital to make sure your organization receives all the funds it is entitled to and that the donor’s wishes are respected and carried out.

Immediate action

How and when the institution learns of a donor’s death often depends on the relationship between the donor and the organization. Did someone receive a call from family? Did researchers read the obituary in a newspaper or online? Or did you learn only when mail was returned?

In many cases one or more development staff members, past or present, worked hard to secure a bequest commitment or complete a life income gift.

First things first

As soon as you find out about the death, make sure that all who worked with the donor are notified immediately. If the donor was particularly close to your organization and you learned of the death in time, it can be appropriate to attend or to send a representative to the funeral. Be sure to respect wishes for private services. In any event, make a point of telling family members or close friends in some cases what their loved one meant to your organization. Condolence notes are always appropriate, and it’s fine for more than one person to write one.

Using checklists will help you be sure that appropriate stewardship is carried out from the time of death and that the proper steps are taken to receive the full testamentary gift.

Next month: What to say to whom—and when—about memorial gifts.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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