Death of Beneficiaries

What happens when a beneficiary in a will dies before the donor?

Church Law and Tax 1991-09-01 Recent Developments

Wills, Trusts, and Estates

A Missouri court ruled that a gift to a radio evangelist contained in the will of a donor “lapsed” when the evangelist died prior to the donor. The will contained an article specifying that the donor’s entire estate, after providing for the donor’s father for life, was to be distributed to a designated radio evangelist. The will provided that “I request that said [evangelist] shall use the money so received by him in the promotion and furtherance of his radio ministry and the spreading of the Gospel as he may see fit.” The donor’s father, and the radio evangelist, both died before the donor. At the donor’s death, his estate was claimed by the evangelist’s estate, what remained of the radio ministry, and the donor’s heirs. The evangelist’s radio ministry claimed that the donor intended to leave his estate to the evangelist in his “representative capacity to use for religious purposes and not in his individual capacity for his own personal use.” Accordingly, the gift was not affected by the evangelist’s death. The court rejected this argument, noting that the will merely requested that the funds be used to promote the radio ministry. It observed that the donor “did not manifest an intention to impose a legal obligation on the [evangelist] to use the property for religious purposes, but rather the language of the will allowed him to either apply the residue of [the donor’s] estate to the designated religious purposes or keep it for his own benefit.” The evangelist’s estate claimed that if the gift was to the evangelist in his individual capacity (and not as a representative of the radio ministry), then his estate was entitled to the property. In rejecting this claim, the court observed: “It is the rule at common law that a gift in trust lapses upon the death of the beneficiary prior to the death of the testator. In Missouri, if the named [beneficiary] in a will is not a relative by consanguinity [i.e., by blood], the common law rule that the gift lapses is still effective.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the donor’s heirs were the rightful owners of his estate. In the Matter of the Estate of McReynolds, 800 S.W.2d 798 (Mo. App. 1990).

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