Recent Developments

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Ownership of Church Parsonages
A Tennessee court addressed this matter in an interesting case.
Tennessee
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A Tennessee court addressed the issue of ownership of a church parsonage in an interesting case. In 1953, a donor gave a home to a church. The deed contained the following language: "This land is given by us to the church for the purpose for the home for the Baptist pastor and no pastor shall occupy said place as a home unless he preaches `that you are saved by Grace through Faith in Jesus Christ and not by works.' And in the event he refuses to preach such doctrine he will not be permitted to reside in said parsonage." Many years later, the church purchased other property for the purpose of constructing a new parsonage, and it sought approval from a court to sell the existing parsonage and apply the proceeds to the construction of the new home. The original donor's surviving family members challenged the church's position, and claimed that they would own the property if the church ever attempted to sell it. A trial court disagreed with the family, and ruled that the church was the absolute and unconditional owner of the parsonage. Accordingly, the church could sell the original parsonage and apply the proceeds to the construction of the new building. The family appealed this decision. The family argued that the original deed was "conditional." That is, the donor intended for the church to own the parsonage only so long as a Baptist pastor lived in the dwelling who preached "that you are saved by Grace through Faith in Jesus Christ and not by works." The family maintained that this condition would be violated if the church ever sold the parsonage, and at such time the title would revert to them. The state appeals court rejected this position, and ruled in favor of the church. It stressed that the alleged "condition" in the deed was not a condition at all, but rather "merely words stating the purpose of the gift." The court concluded that the creation of a conditional deed requires language that clearly calls for a reversion of the property to the donor in the event a specified condition is ever violated. The language in the this deed simply did not satisfy this requirement, the court concluded. Mitchell v. Jerrolds, 1991 WL 39587 (Tenn. App. 1991 unpublished).

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Posted: July 1, 1992
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