When is the best time to leave a bequest?

When is the best time to leave a bequest?

One important decision for retirees involves bequests, and whether or not they want to gift money to loved ones or a favorite charity.

But choosing to leave a bequest is only the first step. You also have to decide when to make the gift.

Many people assume that bequest timing isn’t really a choice, and that the bequest should coincide with their passing.  However, retirees actually have great flexibility when it comes to gifting. What’s more, there are some important reasons to consider gifting sooner rather than later.

The Questions

The questions below can help you decide when your bequest might have the biggest impact. As you answer them, keep track of your point total:

1. Do your loved ones need help with any of the following budget categories?
     a. Housing (1 points)
     b. Education (1 points)
     c. Health care (1 points)

2. How much more valuable would your loved ones find a bequest today rather than a bequest in the distant future?
     a. Much more valuable (2 points)
     b. More valuable (1 points)
     c. About the same (0 point)
     d. Less valuable (-1 points)
     e. Much less valuable (-2 points)

3. How would you describe the following statement: “Giving a gift makes me happier than getting a gift.”
     a. Very true (2 points)
     b. Usually true (1 points)
     c. Sometimes true (0 point)
     d. Usually false (-1 points)
     e. Always false (-2 points)


If you scored 3 or higher, you should seriously consider giving a bequest sooner than later.

What are some reasons to consider making an early bequest? One practical reason is that your children probably need the money the most when they’re younger. If you answered that your loved ones are struggling with common expenses, such as housing and healthcare, and if they would benefit more from an immediate bequest, then you might want to move up the timing of your gift.

In addition, studies by scientists at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia find that giving away money makes us happier than spending money on ourselves.

In part, this is because we quickly adapt to the pleasure of getting something new—that new sweater or phone doesn’t make us happy for long.

However, research by scientists at The University of Chicago finds that we are much slower to adapt to pleasure of giving: the warm glow of generosity can last for years.

If this finding applies to you, and you typically enjoy acts of giving, then waiting on the bequest could lead you to miss out on a big happiness boost.

Just imagine how much joy you’ll experience watching your loved ones enjoy your generosity, whether it’s the grandkids playing in a house you helped buy, or your favorite charity helping more people because of your donation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should always make a bequest as soon as possible. There are some important reasons one might consider holding off on a bequest, including having a tight retirement budget.


  1. If your loved ones need financial help, consider making an earlier bequest.  
  2. If your loved ones would benefit significantly more from an immediate gift, rather than a gift in the distant future, consider moving up the timing of your gift.
  3. If giving to others typically provides you with a big happiness boost, consider making a bequest that allows you to enjoy the impact of your generosity.

Additional reading:

Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. "Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays off." Current Directions in Psychological Science 23.1 (2014): 41-47.