• The Florida Supreme Court struck down a state law that permitted certain heirs to challenge gifts made to churches and other charities in a will executed within 6 months of a person’s death. Prior to this ruling, Florida law, like the laws of a small and dwindling number of states, permitted a spouse or “lineal descendent” to challenge a will of a decedent who died within 6 months after executing a will leaving all or part of his or her estate to a religious or charitable organization. An elderly Florida resident executed a will on May 5, 1986, leaving most of her estate to a charity. The woman’s will left only a token gift to the her sole suriving daughter since the daughter “has not shown or indicated the slightest affection or gratitude to me” and since “I have contributed substantially during my life for her education and subsequent monies I have been required to expend primarily due to her promiscuous type of life.” The woman died two months later, survived only by her daughter. The daughter immediately challenged her mother’s will on the basis of the state law permitting lineal descendants to challenge charitable gifts made in their parents’ wills if executed within 6 months of death. The charity opposed the daughter’s action on the ground that the state law was violated the constitutional guaranty of the “equal protection of the laws.” A trial court agreed with the charity, but a state appeals court agreed with the daughter. The case was appealed to the state supreme court, which ruled that the state law was unconstitutional. The court began its opinion by observing that statutes restricting charitable gifts originated in feudal England “as part of the struggle for power and wealth between the king and the organized church.” As feudalism declined, the justification for these laws became the protection of surviving family members against disinheritance caused by the undue influence of religious organizations. In rejecting this rationale, the court observed that “it is unreasonable to presume, as the statute seems to do, that all lineal descendants are dependents, in need, or are not otherwise provided for.” The court emphasized that state law has ample protections against undue influence and fraud that can be used by disinherited family members without the need for a specific statute. Further, the court observed that “the charitable gift restriction fails to protect against windfalls by lineal descendants who have had no contact with the decedent but who may benefit from the avoidance of a charitable gift.” Since the statute was not “reasonably necessary to accomplish the asserted state goals,” it violated the state constitution. Further, the statute violated the federal and state constitutional protections of the “equal protection of the laws,” since it treated gifts made to charitable and religious organizations within 6 months of death less favorably than other gifts without any rational justification. The fact that a gift is made within 6 months of death is not in itself sufficient proof of undue influence, noted the court, since most gifts made within 6 months of death are not the product of undue influence and some gifts made more than 6 months prior to death are. Accordingly, the 6-month rule was arbitrary and treated charities less favorably than other citizens or organizations without adequate justification. One dissenting justice cautioned that the law might still serve a valuable purpose in appropriate cases: “Surely one would have to say that, had the [decedent] succumbed to a televion evangelist’s call to be with the Lord by delivering her property to his church and thus leave unprotected a physically handicapped child, a rationale basis for the statute would exist.” In conclusion, note that the court observed that there are only three other states that have laws invalidating charitable gifts made within a specified time prior to death—Georgia, Idaho, and Mississippi. Shriners Hospital v. Zrillic, 563 So.2d 64 (Fla. 1990).
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