Court Won’t Address Church’s Claim to Decedent’s Estate

Will’s language was too vague for Catholic diocese’s claim.

Church Law and Tax 1996-05-01

Wills, Trusts and Estates

Key point. The civil courts will not address a church’s claim that a decedent intended to leave a portion of his estate to the church, if that intention is not reflected in his will.

A New York court refused to address the claim of a Catholic diocese that a decedent intended to leave a portion of his estate to the diocese. A decedent left a $5 million estate which under the terms of his last will and testament was to be distributed to those charities designated by his executor. The executor later selected a number of charities, but left nothing to the local Catholic diocese. The diocese sought an opportunity to prove in court that the decedent intended to leave his estate to the diocese. A court refused to allow the diocese to intervene. It noted that the diocese was one among an unlimited and undefined group lacking a preferred status under the will, and was precluded from suing to enforce the charitable disposition under decedent’s will.The state attorney general was the duly authorized party to represent the interests of potential beneficiaries. The court concluded that “were we to address the merits of the diocese’s argument that it was an intended charitable beneficiary under the estate, we would be precluded from considering the extrinsic evidence offered in support of that argument because we find the [decedent’s] language to be a clear and unambiguous expression of an intent to make charitable bequests by vesting sole discretion in the executor to select charitable beneficiaries.” Matter of the Estate of May, 623 N.Y.S.2d 650 (A.D. 3 Dept. 1995).

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