After 20 years of serving as an estate planning attorney, I’ve observed that true financial freedom is more than having greater income than expenses. I saw this truth vividly lived out in this tale of two women I was blessed to represent.
Years before I found myself at NCF, I was in private practice. I was representing a single woman in her 80s who had never married and now needed an estate plan. She had invited me over to her home to discuss the details of how she wanted to leave the assets she had accumulated over the years. When I arrived at her home, I was awestruck – and it wasn’t because of the size of her house or the number of cars in her driveway.
This woman lived in a small ranch-style home in a rough part of the city. Inside the home, the décor was eclectic with mismatched furniture, teacups, and pictures everywhere. There were pillows and throw blankets over every place to sit, welcoming you to be comfortable. The home itself was far different from other, more lavish homes I had been. Every inch of space was the embodiment of this woman’s warmth and kindness. In all honesty, it was one of the loveliest homes I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. The graciousness when I walked in felt like I was physically wrapped in the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
During this visit, I learned that she had worked as a math teacher at one of the most socioeconomically challenged and dangerous high schools in the city. It was her mission field, and she had been teaching there for decades giving her students the same love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control I found in her home. After hearing that this was her lifetime career, I wondered how she could have accumulated the sizable investment portfolio on her balance sheet.
Through further conversation, I discovered that this woman was a math savant. She had managed to keep it a secret from those around her, but shortly after the Great Depression, she began investing in the stock market with an impressive track record. As an investor hobbyist, she had amassed a multi-million-dollar investment portfolio.
She was not remembered by what she had, but rather by how she had lived and loved so fully and so freely.
I had so much fun meeting with her that day and later writing up her estate plan. There were dozens of anonymous gifts made to people she knew. Later, upon her death, I was blessed to administer the single largest bequest in my career for the benefit of a church. And the most amazing part? She was not remembered by what she had, but rather by how she had lived and loved so fully and so freely.
She held the resources that God entrusted to her open-handedly. She didn’t let her wealth define who she was. Her identity, her security, and her daily purpose was anchored securely in Christ alone. Living with that perspective, she was truly free to live abundantly with her resources.
A couple of years later, in 2006, I had the opportunity to work with another woman. Also in her late 80s, she had been widowed years earlier. Her estate was about $50 million, and at that time, it was possible for an individual to leave $2 million to their loved ones before being taxed on the excess at 46 percent. Essentially, if this woman didn’t make other plans, the government was going to take more than $22 million of the estate upon her death.
Her kids made it clear that they didn’t need an inheritance from their mother. With the inheritance their father had already left them, in addition to their own successful careers, the children simply didn’t want the extra inheritance. They encouraged their mother to use it to help others instead. What they did not want was the government to take almost half of her estate when it could be used to fuel causes the family cared about.
They asked her to consider modifying her estate plan to give a large portion of the estate to charity and to also start giving while she was living, so that she could experience the joy of seeing the impact her giving had on the lives of others.
I talked to this woman on multiple occasions. I could tell she was a little nervous about the idea, so with the help of her professional advisors I ran the numbers and showed her that she could lose more than half of her estate to market risk, triple her spending, and even live past 120 years old, and she would not run out of the resources she needed to support herself. But do you think she made the gift? No. She did not.
Despite having more than she would ever need, she lived in fear that she might run out. The sad part of this story isn’t that she did die, and the government did take a sizable portion of her estate. The sad part is that here was a woman who had been exceedingly blessed by her Heavenly Father with more than enough resources to care for her every financial need; yet, she lived in a constant state of fear that it would never be enough. In her fear, she never experienced the peace and joy of true financial freedom.
What I learned
These women and their stories have stayed with me and taught me a valuable lesson. Through them, I’ve come to realize that the decision to give or to keep is, first and foremost, a heart condition. Please don’t miss the point. These stories are not about whether these women gave charitably or not. We have many examples in the Bible of God asking his people to keep and store for his future purposes. The important message in the stories of these women is found in the role they allowed their wealth to play in their hearts. Our identity and our security were never supposed to be wrapped up in our resources. Christ alone is worthy to sit on the throne of our hearts, as our identity, our security, and the author of all of our days.
Our identity and our security were never supposed to be wrapped up in our resources.
In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul says he’s learned the secret of being content in the midst of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. It’s in doing all things through Christ who strengthens us. As we think about our finances, if we begin hearing the whispers of our thought life saying, “I’ll be happy when …” or “Anything but that, Lord,” it might be time for a heart check-up to see where we’re placing our hope and security these days.
In the stark contrast between the stewardship journeys of these two women, we can see the truth about financial freedom. It’s not really about income and expenses. It’s beyond having greater assets than liabilities. It’s about being willing to ask ourselves the tough questions. What are the identities we cling to? What makes us use the words “me” and “my” when we think about our business, our investments, our retirement plans? We know in our heads that all we have is God’s and that we are to steward these for his purposes, but can we grasp that truth fully in our hearts? Only when we do will we be people who live thriving, joyful lives of transformative generosity and true financial freedom.
Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash
Edited by Sarah McMains