Church Loses Property

Property was not being used for religious purposes, violating the deed.

Church Law and Tax 1993-05-01 Recent Developments

Church Property

Key point: The deeds to some church property specify that the church shall remain in possession so long as the property is used for church purposes, and that if the property ever ceases to be so used it shall revert to the person who conveyed the property to the church. The effect of such deeds can come as an unpleasant surprise to church leaders.

Can a church lose its property if it ceases to use it for religious purposes? That was the issue before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in a recent case. A church obtained its property in 1941 by a quitclaim deed that contained the following clause: “It is further understood and agreed that said premises are to be held by said [church] as a parsonage for the minister of said church as a parish house and if said [church] should ever cease to carry on the adjoining property as a church for its own use or if said premises shall ever cease to be used by said church as a parsonage or parish house or for other religious purposes, then said premises shall revert to me [or my heirs].” The person who deeded the property to the church died in 1962. Beginning in 1978, the church ceased using the premises as a parsonage and except for one room no part of the premises were used by the church for religious purposes. Accordingly, the court ruled that the property was now owned by the heirs of the previous owner. What is the significance of this interesting case? Many churches received title to their property by means of a deed containing a similar restriction. It is imperative for church leaders to be aware if such a condition exists. This can be easily determined by inspecting the deed to the church property. While the language of these conditional deeds varies, it is common to condition a church’s ownership of deeded property on continuous use of the property for religious purposes. Such a condition would mean that a church could not sell its property to a buyer who did not plan on using the property for religious purposes. Some of these conditional deeds are even more restrictive, conditioning a church’s ownership on continued use of the property as a church of a specified religious denomination. Under such a clause, a church could not sell its property to a buyer other than another church of the same denomination. In some cases, a deed conditions a church’s ownership on continued use of the property for religious purposes by the congregation that purchased the property. This is even more restrictive, for a church could not sell the property to anyone without triggering a reversion in favor of the previous owner. Obviously, this is a matter that must be taken very seriously. Our recommendation—check the deed or deeds to your church property to determine if any conditions exist. If they do, it is possible in some cases to have them “released” by the previous owner (if he or she is willing to do so). Often this is done by having the previous owner execute a quitclaim deed. If the previous owner is no longer living (a fairly common circumstance) then the condition can be released only by all of the legal heirs of the deceased owner. This can be a very cumbersome process. Howden v. Crombie Street Congregational Church, 590 N.E.2d 687 (Mass. 1992).

See Also: Property

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