Recognizing Charitable Awareness

For estate planner Christian Barner, responsibility plays a significant role in charitable giving. As he notes in a recent conversation with Jennifer Southard, Maine Community Foundation vice president, donor services and gift planning, Barner also believes it takes teamwork to create a legacy.

MaineCF: How do your clients respond to the idea of charitable giving?

Christian Barner: Their response is a function of what I like to call “charitable awareness.” I grew up thinking that charitable giving meant tipping 25% at a restaurant -- I lacked charitable awareness. In contrast, there are families in which charitable giving is an expectation passed on from one generation to the next.

MaineCF: How do you recognize charitable awareness?

Barner: Sometimes the cues are obvious: a client has a bequest in an existing will or mentions serving on a nonprofit board or land trust, for example. Between college and law school, I ran a homeless shelter in the Portsmouth area, an experience I often use as a way to talk about charitable giving.

Wealth, whether earned or inherited, carries with it the responsibility to manage it, grow it, and give it away. Individuals with this perspective are far more likely to establish a charitable remainder trust or work with a foundation to make lasting gifts. These are the situations that I, as an estate planner, enjoy the most because there’s a feeling that everyone is working toward the same goal.

MaineCF: Would you share a story of a client who worked with the community foundation?

Barner: A recent example involved the administration of the estates of a couple. Husband and wife died almost simultaneously with poorly drafted wills and no children, but with a clear desire to benefit Maine search-and-rescue organizations. I was appointed by the court as Personal Representative for the husband’s estate; another attorney served for the wife’s. Together, we secured the court’s approval to establish a donor-advised fund at the Maine Community Foundation.

We had difficulty identifying Maine organizations that met the criteria and then bringing them together. The Maine Community Foundation was vital in guiding us. We appreciate its role as facilitator in these types of cases.

MaineCF: Has the conversation around charitable giving shifted at all with some of the changes in federal and state tax laws?

Barner: Not a lot. I think most estate planners would tell you that clients are either receptive to a discussion about charitable giving or they are not. Some clients will consider charities to avoid incurring state or federal estate taxes, but the most satisfying and successful gifts begin with true charitable intent. That doesn’t seem to change with fluctuations in the amount of available exemptions.

What the roller coaster ride in estate planning law does seem to do is inspire clients to come in and discuss their plans. When they do, it is an opportunity for us to again raise the charitable giving issue.

Christian Barner has been practicing law in Southern Maine for more than 20 years. He is a founding partner of Bergen & Parkinson, LLC, with offices in Kennebunk and Saco. A graduate of Colby College, Barner earned his law degree from the University of Maine School of Law. Concentrating in the areas of estate planning, probate, and trust administration, he served on the Maine Uniform Trust Code Committee and was recently appointed by the Maine Supreme Court to the Probate Rules Committee. He is a member of the Maine Estate Planning Council, York County Bar Association, Maine State Bar Association, and the American Bar Association.