Is It True You Advise Not Leaving Any Inheritance to Our Children?

Reader question:

A blogger wrote that you aren’t leaving any inheritance to your children, and that in your book Managing God’s Money, you encourage other believers to do the same. What is your response?

Answer from Randy:

No, this is not accurate. Here’s what I actually say in the book:

Managing God's MoneyIn Old Testament times, it was essential that parents pass land ownership to their children and grandchildren. Many people were too poor to buy land. With no inheritance, they would end up enslaved or unable to care for their parents and grandparents, who normally lived on the property with them. This was the context in which they were told, “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22, NIV).

Today in America and many other affluent countries, inheritances are very different. Rather than keeping children and grandchildren from poverty and slavery, usually they are windfalls coming to people who

  • live separately from their parents;
  • have regular sources of income generated by their own work, skills, saving, and investing; and
  • have far more than they need. Even if they are managing the family business, a windfall isn’t necessary or even helpful for them to continue.

When such people inherit a farm, house, or other real estate, what becomes of it? Typically, they sell it. The inheritance doesn’t enhance their work; it simply increases their standard of living, sometimes dramatically.

I consider it important not to leave money to our daughters that would interfere with my sons-in-law’s responsibility to provide for them. Fortunately, my sons-in­law are very responsible, and I trust them fully. But how dare any of us, whether family or friends or government, allow our financial subsidies to deny the character-building privilege and divine calling of a man to work hard to provide for his wife and children?

Many well­meaning 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.

People often testify of the character, discipline, self-control, and trust in God they developed when they were younger and had much less to live on. How ironic that these same people pass on large amounts of money to their children, robbing them of similar blessings and character development.

Multimillionaire 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. He must face this question squarely: Will my fortune be safe with my boy and will my boy be safe with my fortune?”

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).

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.

For many years I’ve had the opportunity to speak to and interact with wealthy believers, and I’ve heard heartbreaking stories about the devastating effects of receiving a large inheritance. In The Legacy of Inherited Wealth, compiled by two wealthy heiresses, seventeen adult heirs recount the blessings and curses of their inherited wealth. Their stories suggest that the curses far outweigh the blessings. What repeatedly surfaces is frustration, anger, doubt, insecurity, and resentment—all tied to growing up wealthy or becoming wealthy through inheritance.The larger the estate, the more its potential for harm to those who inherit it. 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.

…Many people have expressed shock when they’ve heard me say that Christian parents should seriously consider leaving the bulk of their estate to churches, parachurch ministries, missions, and other Kingdom purposes. But that advice comes from decades of not only studying Scripture but also observing what happens when large inheritances are passed on to those who did nothing to earn them. That’s why Jesus answered this questioner as he did: “‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ . . . [Jesus warns him] ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’” (Luke 12:13, 15, NIV).

Of course, if children and grandchildren have special needs, parents can leave money to them as seems best. But, generally, leaving only a modest portion—enough to help grandchildren with college, for instance—encourages our adult children to work hard, plan, not overspend, and experience the joy of trusting God.

Consider this question: What would you think if your money manager died and left all your money to his children? Well, if our money really belongs to God and we are his money managers, what makes us think that when we die it should all go to our children, even when they don’t need it?

Nanci and I chose to share some of our assets with our grown children when they most needed it—by helping with their down payments on homes. We seek to be generous to them and our grandchildren now, helping pay for travel and special expenses they incur. The amount left for them later, when they won’t need it, won’t be large. We have explained this to them. They know we love them, and they understand that we desire both to honor God and to act in their best interests.

When people talk about leaving a large inheritance to their adult children, I ask them if those children really need more money. Nearly always, they reply, “No.”

Then I ask, “Since they don’t need it, what do you hope your children will do with the money you leave them?”

“Well, it would be great if they gave it away to missions and helping the poor.”

“But since God has entrusted the money to you, not them, and since giving it away is what you believe is right, then why don’t you give it away?”

To reiterate, we are in fact leaving some money to our kids and grandkids in our will, just not the bulk of what we leave behind. That’s  not a change. That has always been our plan. We believe it’s the most loving thing we can do for them, for our Lord, and for needy people.

I’ve dealt with this subject in more depth in two previous blog posts, which you may be interested in reading.

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