State of Estates


By John Jeter

Folks are dying to move here. Turns out, they’re also including their adopted hometowns in their estate planning. With South Carolina among the nation’s top three destinations for retirees—arrivals have jumped 6 percent since the recession—they fall in love with the place (Who doesn’t?). With that influx of well-heeled migrants, the Palmetto State’s seeing a boost in bequests.

“From a trending standpoint, I definitely think that’s on the uptick,” says Cynthia Wood, chief operating officer of the nearly 70-year-old Historic Charleston Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the Holy City’s architecture, culture, and history. “When people choose a place to move to as a retiree, rather than moving to a place because their company sends them there, they tend to choose a place so much more intentionally. You like it so much you want to contribute to it.”

An annual statement shows that of the foundation’s nearly $5.7 million in 2014 revenues, $2.3 million came from philanthropy, which includes “bequests, contributions, grants, friends”—up nearly two-thirds from the previous year’s $1.02 million.

The foundation’s experiencing incremental growth in planned giving, thanks in part to a growing population of people more involved in the city, she says.

“They’re generous in their philanthropy,” she says, echoing estate-planning experts who also are seeing, let’s say, death benefits accruing in the Upstate, too.

“I really think charitable giving is on the rise,” says David Merline, Jr., whose 40-plus-year-old Greenville law firm specializes in, among other things, estate planning and trusts. “I don’t have stats to back that up, it’s just that a lot of our clients say, ‘How much is the right amount for my child, how much is too much?’ Not everybody comes in and says, ‘I’m going to leave everything to my kids,’ … and because of that, many people are incorporating charitable.”

For the vast majority of us, estate taxes don’t apply because the feds’ current estate-tax minimum currently stands at nearly $5.5 million for an individual, double that for a married couple. So where there’s a will, there’s a way to give back.

Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville, a nonprofit philanthropy formed in 1956 and with $24 million gross receipts in 2014, says he, too, sees an increase in newcomers immersed in and impassioned by their surroundings. “They’ve been charitable wherever they lived. They want to support charity.”

Folks fall for the Symphony, recreational amenities, art galleries, venues, and so forth, he says: “That’s why they’re moving here, right? When they move here—you can’t believe the unbelievable backgrounds these people come from—in literature, business, the arts,” Morris says. “It makes me very confident in the kind of people that are moving here and the kind of interests they have.”

At Furman University, whose roughly $600 million endowment exceeds those of the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina Foundation, Steve Perry, the Greenville school’s director of estate planning, sees greater gift giving among people who aren’t even alumni.

He credits the private liberal-arts college’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for senior adult education and its Bridges to a Brighter Future programs for becoming ever-stronger draws for transplants’ bequests.

“It’s a great trend,” he says. “Those who are philanthropically inclined, and have resources, typically are going to make estate gifts as part of their plan, and so Furman has sort of entered their lives and become part of their decision-making.”

Places like Greenville—the same could be said of Charleston, too—simply inspire involved people to stay involved, even in death.

“I think that this community, in general, has open arms, people with similar interests,” says Tracy S. Romano, senior vice president and trust advisor at Park Sterling Bank. “From what I’m gathering, all these people are so in tune with each other, it’s a mutual interest. I would just say if you’ve lived here long enough—and I’ve lived here all my life—for the most part, so far, when Greenville decides to do something they do it pretty well.”

That goes for planning your estate. Do it well, despite how hard it is.

Laura Varas, chief executive officer and founder of Hearts & Wallets, a New York-based data and consulting firm focusing on retail investor decision-making, including estate planning, cites its 2016 report, Pain Points and Actions. “The survey finds that one of the most difficult financial tasks for those getting ready to retire and those already retired is estate planning”; more than 26 percent say they find the task “somewhat or very difficult,” up two percentage points from the year before.

“Only eight percent of pre-retirees and retirees say they sought help for estate planning in the past 12 to 18 months,” she says. “In our view, the reason most people don’t address estate planning is because it’s not yet a burning priority. They focus on the alligator closest to the boat.”

Debora Faulkner, a 20-year probate judge in the Upstate, says planning’s essential and leaving a charitable legacy isn’t such a bad idea, either. The last thing you want, she says, is for your assets or heirs to appear before her.

“Once you’re in there,” she says, pointing from her chambers to her courtroom, “you’re losing money because you’re paying lawyers several hundred dollars an hour and the lawyers become the de facto beneficiaries of your estate because your estate starts paying them to either defend an action or to bring an action.”

As for leaving something behind for something that gave to you, she says, “Charitable giving, who can be against it? I think it makes our community better. We don’t have enough tax dollars to do all the good that needs to be done, so it’s up to people who have a sense of community pride, and a lot of them haven’t been able to be public servants, they’ve worked in private industry, and this gives them a way to promote things in the community that maybe they weren’t able to do.”