Should We Leave Our Children Inheritances?

Scripture says that “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). As a result, many Christians defend and justify leaving vast sums of wealth to their children and grandchildren. I think in order to understand the principle behind this verse, we need to compare what an inheritance meant in biblical times, versus what an inheritance means in this culture today. 

In Old Testament times, passing on ownership of the land to children and grandchildren was vital. Without it, succeeding generations couldn’t do their farming or raise livestock. Many people lived at a subsistence level. Most were too poor to buy land. With no inheritance they could end up enslaved or unable to care for their parents and grandparents, who normally lived on the property with them until they died.

Today in America, however, things are very different. Inheritances are usually windfalls coming to people who live separately from their parents, have their own careers, are financially independent, and already have more than they need. Most often they aren’t carrying on the family business, or if they are, they don’t need a windfall in order to continue doing so. They have dependable sources of income generated by their own work, skills, saving, and investing. When such people inherit a farm, house, or other real estate, what becomes of it? Typically, they liquidate the asset or use it as a further source of income. They do not need the land or the money. Having it will simply mean increasing their standard of living, sometimes dramatically.

Those who cite Scripture to prove that parents should leave an inheritance to children typically do not follow Scripture’s guidelines of leaving to sons only, a double portion to the firstborn, and so on. Hebrew firstborn sons were legally entitled to a double portion of inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). If a man died without sons, the inheritance went to his daughters, if no daughters to his brothers, if no brothers to his nearest relatives (Numbers 27:1-11). Ultimately land could not be lost to a family line, as it reverted to them in the year of Jubilee, when all debts were canceled.

It seems inconsistent to say that an inheritance should be left because the Bible says so but then to turn around and do it very differently than the Bible explains. A better approach is to understand the reasons for inheritance, then see these not as rules to be legalistically obeyed but as underlying principles that we should weigh.

In Biblical times, daughters often remained in their father’s home or they lived with their husbands, enjoying the benefits of his land. A father’s inheritance did not normally go to his daughters, most likely so as not to interfere with their husbands’ responsibility to provide for them. As a father of daughters, I consider it important not to leave money that would interfere with my sons-in-law’s responsibility to provide for my daughters. How dare I take away from them the character-building privilege and divine calling of working hard to care for their families? Many well-meaning parents have caused serious marital conflicts by leaving money to their grown children. Money that’s “his” and “hers” divides the marriage and fosters an unhealthy independence. Married couples who inherit wealth should not keep it separate from each other.

In a society with such affluence and opportunity as our own, I believe that in most cases Christian parents should seriously consider leaving the bulk of their estate to churches, parachurch ministries, missions, and other kingdom purposes, leaving only a small portion to their children. Leaving a large inheritance to children is not just a missed opportunity to invest in God’s kingdom. It’s also rarely in the children’s best interests.

I’ve heard countless inheritance horror stories over the years. Study the lives of people who have inherited significant wealth and you’ll find that in the vast majority of cases, it’s made them more unhappy, greedy, and cynical. Who needs to work hard when you’ve got all that money? Money funds new temptations, including addictions. Giving money to a careless spender is throwing gasoline on a fire. And nothing divides siblings more quickly than a large inheritance. Leaving more to God’s kingdom and less to financially independent children is not just an act of love toward God, but toward them.

Andrew Carnegie said, “The almighty dollar bequeathed to a child is an almighty curse. No man has the right to handicap his son with such a burden as great wealth.” 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.”

More important, God says, “An inheritance quickly gained at the beginning will not be blessed at the end” (Proverbs 20:21, NIV). Wise parents can leave enough to their children and grandchildren to be helpful without leaving them so much as to hurt them.

Of course, besides preventing harm to our children, there is great good we can do by leaving money to God-exalting ministries. Any family members who would pout about or fight over what belonged to their deceased parents or who respond negatively when we decide to leave most of our money to the cause of Christ instead of to them prove they’re unqualified to inherit in the first place. Such children need prayer and guidance. What they certainly do not need is more money.

If parents decide to give most or all of their estate to God’s Kingdom, they should explain their plans to their children. This will prevent false expectations and free their children from later resentment. It will also alleviate present guilt feelings stemming from what children might imagine they have to gain by their parents’ death. Even though they know they shouldn’t, grown children commonly find themselves thinking about and looking forward to all the money and possessions that will be theirs when their parents die. Some go into debt now because they expect to, so to speak, win the lottery through their parents’ deaths. The sooner these attitudes are defused, the better.

I recommend having a family conference or writing out in detail what your plan is, then asking each adult child to get back to you with his or her response. Committed Christians, whose parents declare their intent to leave most of their estate to God’s work, will be the first to say, “That’s wonderful, Dad and Mom. Go for it! And thanks for being a great example to us.”

Nanci and I will leave to our daughters only enough to be of modest assistance, but not enough to change their lifestyles or undercut their need to plan and pray with and depend on their husbands. We’ve communicated this, and they understand and agree with our plan to give most of our estate to God’s kingdom.

Certainly we should not transfer wealth to adult children unless we’ve successfully transferred wisdom to them. Without wisdom, wealth will not only be wasted, but it will damage our children by subsidizing addictions, laziness, and immorality.

Your children should love the Lord, work hard, and experience the joy of trusting God. More important than leaving your children an inheritance is leaving them a spiritual heritage.

Let God decide how much to provide for your adult children. Once they’re on their own, the money you’ve generated under God’s provision doesn’t belong to your children—it belongs to Him. After all, if your money manager died, what would you think if he left all your money to his children?

For more, see our other resources on money and giving, as well as Randy's related books.

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries