Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Church Not Obligated to Return Undesignated Contributions

Key point. The word contribution is synonymous with the word gift, and since no gift occurs unless a donor absolutely and irrevocably transfers all title, dominion, and control over the gift, it follows that donors who make an undesignated contribution to a church have no legal right to a refund.

A California court ruled that a church is not obligated to return undesignated contributions to donors absent fraud or mistake. A church member (the “plaintiff”) sued his church seeking a refund of contribution he had made to the church on the ground that his contributions were “converted” from legitimate church use to the inappropriate and unauthorized expenses including the purchase of a home, furnishings, landscaping, cars, clothes, a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, and other items. The trial court disagreed, and the member appealed.

A state appeals court noted that the elements of conversion are “the plaintiff owns or has a right to possession of personal property; defendant disposed of the personal property in a manner that is inconsistent with the plaintiff’s rights; and damages.” However, “where plaintiff neither has title to the property alleged to have been converted, nor possession thereof, he cannot maintain an action for conversion.”

The question is whether the plaintiff “had title to or possession of the money, or whether he relinquished both title and possession by making valid gifts. If he made valid gifts, then the trial court did not commit error because he could not establish the requisite title to or possession of the money. If he did not make valid gifts, then the trial court’s ruling is not supported by its logic.”

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