A bequest is a gift of personal property given through the terms of a will. Personal property refers to any asset that isn’t land or real estate (formally known as real property).
Making a last will and testament, a legal document that allows you bequeath money or belongings, can provide a way for you to leave an inheritance for your loved ones. You can structure your bequests in a few different ways, like dictating specific assets you want a beneficiary of a will to receive or evenly dividing your estate between certain beneficiaries.
What does bequest mean?
According to legal dictionaries, bequests have traditionally been defined as the act of leaving someone money or a non-real estate asset through the terms of a will. When you receive real estate property, like a house, through a will, you are receiving what’s technically called a devise, and not a bequest. (The person receiving real estate through a will is called a devisee.)
Difference between a bequest & inheritance
An inheritance is a broader term that refers to anything received or that passed on, and it also doesn’t have to be through a will. For example, you can inherit as the beneficiary of a trust.
Bequest vs. gift
A bequest is considered a gift — someone bequeaths or gives an asset through a will — but not all gifts are bequests. You could, for example, give a gift to someone during your lifetime without using a will. (If you want to give away assets during your lifetime, you can give gifts worth up to $18,000 without having to worry about tax consequences.)
Types of bequests
When you write a will, you can leave an inheritance to someone in a few different ways, depending on the type of bequest you make.
General bequest: The will doesn’t specify the source of the gift, but states a percentage or dollar amount, like when you bequeath your estate in equal parts amongst your beneficiaries.
Demonstrative bequest: With this gift you can name the exact source, like a bank account or a retirement plan you want to bequeath. (Keep in mind that financial accounts can often be made payable-on-death, so you should not put them in your will.)
Specific bequest: You can list a specific piece of personal property that you want a beneficiary to inherit.
Residuary bequest: Also known as a residual bequest, this is a gift of what’s leftover (the residue of the estate) after all of the other bequests are completed.
You should take these bequests into account when you’re preparing for the future and deciding how you want to divvy up your estate. When you get a free will, you may not always have the option to choose between different types of bequests.
Type of bequest
"50% of my estate to my son and 50% to my daughter..."
"The income from my investment account to..."
"My vinyl collection to..."
"The residue of the estate to..."
When you bequeath something to a non-profit organization it’s considered a charitable gift, which can also fall under any of the types of bequests mentioned above. For example, in your will you could leave 10% of your money to your local church (general bequest), or you could state that you want to donate all your books to the library (specific bequest).
When you give to a charitable organization, they will typically ask you to specify whether your gift is restricted or unrestricted. A restricted bequest lets you fund a specific cause, like a scholarship or new building; an unrestricted bequest lets the organization decide how the funds should be used.
Any time you give to a non-profit organization through your will, you can get a tax deduction to help reduce any potential estate taxes. In 2024, your estate is only responsible for estate tax if it is worth over $13.61 million.
If you want to donate a significant amount or over a longer period of time, you may consider opening a charitable trust.
Other types of bequests
There are also two more ways of talking about bequests: conditional and executory, which both hinge upon certain events occurring in order for the beneficiary to receive the gift.
An executory bequest is made when a specific event happens in the future, like if you want to pass certain trust assets to your child when they get married. A conditional bequest is contingent on an event happening by the time the writer of the will (testator) has died, like if you want to leave your furniture to someone if they own a house by the time you die. Both types of bequests are very closely related but can have significant implications in the future when it comes time to inherit.
If you want to leave a conditional or executory bequest to someone, consider speaking with an estate planning attorney because the specific language you use when drafting your will could affect how closely your wishes are followed. You don’t want a dispute among your beneficiaries or for anyone to contest the will after you pass because you didn’t use the proper bequest language.