Most people wait until death to give away of the bulk of their money. Upon death, they are done using their money, and they cannot take anything extra with them. When you are that someone, your beneficiary choices may include your surviving spouse, your children, other family, friends and your community.
Everyone wants their money to have the biggest possible impact, so watch out for taxes which may erode your gift. There are two types of taxes your money will be subject to upon death; the first is the estate tax and the second is the tax on income with respect to decedent (IRD). You have to pay income taxes on cashed in IRAs because they previously have not been taxed.
You will be eligible for a tax break if you leave money to charity - whether your money is in IRAs, other pre-tax money, or after-tax money. All of these are deducted from your taxable estate and are therefore not subject to estate tax. All gifts to charity also escape the tax on IRD.
If you would like some of your estate to go to charity and you want to reduce your overall taxes to your beneficiaries, you must pay careful attention to what goes where. If you have a choice, give some of your IRA money to charity - it will escape all taxes! If, instead, you had left the IRA money to anyone other than your spouse, then at some point they would have had to pay taxes on the IRD. You can leave other (non-IRA) money through your will or trust to your non-charitable beneficiaries.
Your will or trust does not determine where your IRA money goes - it is the beneficiary designation for the IRA that does that. The easiest way for you to specify who gets the money is to get the IRA beneficiary form and fill it out. You could, for example, have your spouse as the primary beneficiary and the charities as contingent or secondary beneficiaries, i.e. they collect if the primary beneficiary is no longer alive.
Beneficiary designations are easier and less expensive to change than your will. You also have the flexibility to choose which IRA goes to which charity.
Think carefully which charities are the most important to you. If you are leaving a substantial amount of money to a limited number of charities, you can have a much larger impact than was possible from smaller donations during your lifetime. If you have a strong preference what you want the charity to do with your money, it will be helpful to discuss this with the charity while you can.
It is absolutely critical to involve your attorney in the decision-making process to make sure that you have the right wording and that you properly coordinate all aspects of your estate planning.