By Jennifer Johnson
The president of Financial Planning Ministry since 1994 explains what FPM does and why it’s important.
So let’s start with an overview of what Financial Planning Ministry is all about.
Ultimately FPM is about helping people be better stewards. We accomplish this by educating people about their estate planning options and providing an estate planning solution called a living trust that allows them to easily avoid huge costs in probate and pass that “saved” money along to family members and ministries they care about.
What’s a living trust? How is it different from a will?
A will can express your wishes after your death and direct where your estate should go. The problem is most people’s estates have to go through a court process called probate before their assets are passed on to their loved ones or to charities. Probate takes time and it can also cost a significant percentage of the total estate value. The living trust is an alternative that allows you to make the same choices about your assets but it doesn’t go through probate, so there are no delays or hidden costs. The process goes much more smoothly and thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars can go to people and causes you care about instead of going to the probate court.
Another advantage to the living trust is you retain your privacy. Many people aren’t aware that when you pass away, all your information is collected by the probate court—the size of your estate, who your creditors are, who you’re leaving money to and how much. All those records are kept and made available upon request to the public. So anyone can look at that information and potentially take advantage of it by preying upon your children or anyone to whom you’ve left a significant inheritance.
How does FPM work? What’s the process?
We do 90-minute seminars in local churches and explain the issues of wills and trusts, talk about probate, and answer questions, and then encourage people to take action and put a plan together. We let them know they have options; they can work with local professionals or we offer the service of putting the documents together. If they choose to work with us, we meet with them individually to fill out the planning guide and receive their instructions about how they want to distribute their assets in their estate plan.
We also offer to prepare Advance Health Care Directives. We create all the documents for them to simply sign and notarize. We have helped almost 18,000 individuals and families, and we keep an active file on each one so we can help them with updates to their documents in the future.
We do all this without any cost to the individual. Instead of charging them a fee for our work, we ask them to consider leaving a financial gift out of their estate to one or more of our sponsoring ministries. So people get the estate planning work they need, they save a lot of money by avoiding probate, they pay no up-front costs, and our sponsoring organizations receive a commitment for a financial gift in the future—what we call an expectancy. So far this has redirected $750 million from probate to ministry.
This really is a stewardship opportunity.
Absolutely. Our purpose is not to be involved in documents, although we do them very well; our number one purpose is to help people understand they could lose tens of thousands of dollars unnecessarily in probate costs. Many people think you have to have a huge estate and lots of wealth to trigger the probate process, but in most states you just need total assets around $50,000 or you need to own property. So you’re almost guaranteed to have probate costs, and we want to help people avoid that.
At the same time, we also believe God owns everything and we want to be good managers of what he’s given us, which means sharing the opportunity to convert some of those dollars into ministry.
The two most common objections we hear from people about setting up an estate plan is they don’t understand what to do or it’s too expensive. We’ve eliminated both problems with this approach.
Do you do other types of financial planning, such as investments and retirement planning?
No, Financial Planning Ministry is a broad name for the organization, and that came about 30 years ago when it was first getting started. There are lots of great financial planners around the country who do the type of work you’re talking about, but I haven’t yet found another nonprofit organization that does what we do and works with churches and parachurches. So we continue to do what we do with excellence, but we don’t branch out into other things our name might imply; we don’t sell insurance or manage investments. You could say we specialize in the ultimate retirement plan.
You mentioned that FPM started about 30 years ago. Tell us a little more about that story.
One of the things that’s unique about FPM is it’s not a business that was formed to serve a fund-raising need. We were created by ministries, for ministries. We began with a handful of organizations in California and we’ve grown through word of mouth. After the first 10 years we decided we were ready to add additional sponsoring organizations, and we now have 65 sponsors and have done estate planning work in 48 states.
Two years ago our ministry grew 30 percent, and last year we grew an additional 40 percent. We’ll do 200 seminars in churches this year to a total attendance of about 6,000 people. We’ve grown quickly in recent years, but we’ve been able to keep pace with it because we’ve taken our time to do it, we’re staffed well, we’re a debt-free organization, and we’re continuing to grow at a sustainable pace.
The thing about our approach and our process is we’re completely accessible to organizations of every size that have a commitment to providing stewardship opportunities to their members or donors. The support structure required for involvement is very modest, especially in relationship to what they receive, and a college or ministry that doesn’t have a full development program on its own can work with us to offer something valuable to their members or alumni. On the other hand, many of our largest colleges and organizations are partners as well, even through they have complete development programs.
I’ve always appreciated that about FPM—it’s not something that’s only open to people from the biggest churches or people with a lot of money.
We’ve always been grassroots. You don’t have to be in the top 10 percent in wealth to use our services. Every family in the church deserves the opportunity to plan for their family’s future, avoid probate, and make good stewardship choices. And so instead of having one gift worth $10 million, we’ll create thousands of $50,000 estate gifts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
We’ll even work with people who have a negative net worth but need a special needs trust for their son or daughter, or a single mom who doesn’t have assets but has two children and needs a document that provides guardianship. We’re happy to do those kinds of things. Our team will spend as much time with those people as they will someone who’s leaving 10 percent of their estate or several million dollars. It’s at the core of what we do. We were designed to meet the needs of our members. The fact that we almost have more work than we can keep up with is a testimony that we’re probably doing the right thing.
So what’s on the horizon for FPM?
We’re going to continue this core focus on estate planning and living trusts, but we’re always finding new ways to deliver it. We’ve been investing in technology and have a pretty sophisticated data management method. Our document creation process and our management of the 18,000 members and all of their documents could grow by a factor of 10 and we would still be able to meet those needs.
Last year we developed about 1,800 new estate plans. We’ll probably do 2,800 more this year. So when we look into the future we’re looking for ways we can be prepared to offer this to more people. People don’t see this as a fund-raiser for the sponsoring organizations, and that’s not the intention. Certainly the original organizations saw this as a way to be more effective in developing future gifts, but they did it by looking at how they could best serve people. You look for the legitimate need and you fill it in a legitimate way, and it’s going to be successful.
Jennifer Johnson, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.