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Worldcrunch

Heir Bare: When Grandma Leaves All Her Money To Charity

Article illustrative image Partner logo Who's going to inherit the surf board?

GENEVA – Marie-Gisèle Sandoz lives by herself, and has no children or siblings. 

When the retiree decided it was time to make a will, it didn't take long to decide who would be the benificiaries: three-quarters of her assets will go to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. "Ecology has always been an interest of mine and I like the idea of doing something for the environment even after I’m gone," she explained. "They do good work and they’re less aggressive than Greenpeace."

The WWF will thus be the beneficiary of Sandoz’s small apartment in the Zürcher Oberland in northern Switzerland, where the former executive secretary from Neuchâtel has chosen to spend her retirement.

But had she had any doubts about which charity to choose, Sandoz could have gone to www.MyHappyEnd.org -- a platform where 18 NGOs describe what they do and provide thousands of useful tips to future "donors from beyond," as they were affectionately dubbed by Vincent Maunoury, responsible for legacies at Terre des Hommes (a Swiss children’s rights charity).

Philanthropists such as Sandoz are still relatively rare. Out of the $32 billion inherited every year in Switzerland, for example, only 1 to 1.5% goes to charity.

"The problem," as Sandoz puts it, "is that we don’t like to talk about death. Which means that most people aren’t prepared when the time comes..." Organizations have to find a way of making themselves known without looking like macabre vultures.

Communication is the key. MyHappyEnd has recently launched an online competition for the best artistic homage to benefactors. Who are these benefactors? A rich woman from Zurich, for instance, bequeathed more than $3 million to the Salvation Army in 2010.

Unhappy families

People without close relatives are usually more likely to put donations to charities into their wills, according to Samy Darwish, MyHappyEnd president. He handles about 20 such cases per year. At Terre des hommes, Vincent Maunoury tries to describe the typical donor: a woman, aged 50 to 60, sometimes very rich, although not necessarily. And at peace with their family? This is a sensitive subject.

"In seven years, I've never seen anyone leaving money or property to an NGO just to spite their family," assures Darwish. Still, even when there are no direct relatives, leaving everything to charities almost always means that a distant cousin ends up denied his inheritance. And for people who do have children, the gesture plainly says, "You shall have what you are legally entitled to, but nothing more."

"Our donors’ decisions do not always please families," admits Maunoury, who handles 60 cases per year for Terre des Hommes -- 5 to 10 % of which prove "problematic." The main source of disputes comes when people’s wills are "unclear," which is why charities highly recommend that people use a notary when making their wills.

Late changes to a will, for instance, usually spell trouble, says Maunoury. "Sometimes families accuse us of forcing people’s hands, although we are only respecting the last wishes of a person who acts out of conviction."

An increasing number of people are starting to divide their assets among several charities. Vincent Maunoury recalls the recent example of a widow in Lausanne whose will included 60 heirs, 52 of which were NGOs.

Marie-Gisèle Sandoz made things easier for everyone by sticking to the WWF. She even told her second cousins, with whom she is on excellent terms. "I wrote them a letter and told them about giving my money to ‘a charity.’ Maybe I should have been more specific... Well, I'll show them this article!"

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