Gift to Non-Existent Church Should Go to Other Charities in Will, Court Rules

Cy pres’ doctrine not applicable because church’s purpose was not established.

Church Law and Tax 1993-03-01 Recent Developments

Wills, Trusts, and Estates

Key point: The “cy pres” doctrine permits a gift to a charity to be used for a related purpose if the original purpose becomes impossible or impractical.

A Pennsylvania court ruled that a gift in a decedent’s will to a non-existent church should be distributed to the other charities mentioned in the will, and not revert to the decedent’s heirs. A woman left a will that distributed the income from her estate to several relatives for their lives, and at their deaths, in equal shares to six named charities. One of the charities was the “Moses Taylor Memorial Church.” The other charities included a Presbyterian church, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and two hospitals. Following the death of the last relative mentioned in the will, the trustee prepared to distribute the principal and undistributed income of the estate to the six charities. However, after a diligent search, he was unable to locate a “Moses Taylor Memorial Church.” Accordingly, a local court ordered the trustee to distribute the one-sixth share of the Moses Taylor Memorial Church in equal shares to the remaining five charities. The Presbyterian church objected to this distribution, arguing that it should have received the entire one-sixth share of the Moses Taylor Memorial Church since it was the charity that “most resembled” the one the decedent intended to benefit. A state appeals court, applying the “cy pres” doctrine, affirmed the trial court’s decision to divide the one-sixth share of the Moses Taylor Memorial Church in equal shares among the remaining five charities named in the will. The court began its opinion by noting that the cy pres doctrine provides that “if the charitable purpose for which an interest is conveyed shall be or become indefinite or impossible or impractical of fulfillment, the court shall order a distribution of the estate for a charitable purpose in a manner as nearly as possible to fulfill the intention of the conveyor.” In other words, if a donor makes a gift to a charity that no longer exists at the time the gift is implemented, then a court can distribute the gift to a related charitable purpose. Similarly, if a donor conveys a gift to a charity for a specified purpose, and that purpose becomes impossible or impractical, then a court can authorize the use of the gift for a related purpose. The cy pres doctrine is based on the fact that “charities are favorites of the law and a gift, even for a specific charitable purpose, should be liberally construed whenever reasonably possible” to effectuate the donor’s charitable intent. In this case, the donor’s intent of benefiting the Moses Taylor Memorial Church was impossible to fulfill since the church could not be located. The only question under the cy pres doctrine was what charity should receive the one-sixth interest that the donor intended be distributed to the Moses Taylor Memorial Church. The court disagreed that the Presbyterian church should receive the entire interest. It observed: “The only similarity between the [Moses Taylor Memorial Church] and the Presbyterian church is the use of the term ‘church,’ and since we cannot know the nature or function of this defunct or non-existent church, to decide the case based on the finding that it is closest to the name of the non-existent organization used by the [deceased] is in error.” Accordingly, the court agreed with the trial court’s application of the cy pres doctrine, and equally divided the one-sixth share of the Moses Taylor Memorial Church among the five remaining charities named in the will. The key consideration here is that there was no evidence as to the nature or purpose of the defunct church. Had it been proven that it was a Presbyterian church, there is no doubt that the court would have awarded the entire share of the Moses Taylor Memorial Church to the other Presbyterian church named in the will. In re Farrow, 602 A.2d 1346 (Pa. Super. 1992).

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