Wills, Trusts, and Estates

A Louisiana court ruled that a church should receive the estate of a deceased woman, despite an ambiguity in her will.

Church Law and Tax 2001-11-01

Wills, Trusts, and Estates

Key point. Wills that leave gifts to churches may be ambiguous, requiring a court to interpret the decedent’s intention.

A Louisiana court ruled that a church should receive the estate of a deceased woman, despite an ambiguity in her will. A woman (“Susan”) died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She was 45 years old. A dispute arose over who would receive her financial assets, valued at more than $500,000, and including annuities and various securities. Her will bequeathed all “insurance policies, stocks, bonds, and negotiable instruments” found in her safety deposit box to a designated heir, and it left all of the rest of her personal property in trust for a Catholic church. Although not Catholic, Susan attended church regularly with her husband. She and her husband often had a Catholic priest over for dinner. Upon realizing her talent in the gardening field, the priest asked Susan for help at the church, and she began directing the planting and upkeep of the church’s grounds. Even after her divorce from her husband, Susan continued working at the church, overseeing the planting of more than 70 trees, 150 bushes, and hundreds of flowers.

Susan’s safety deposit box was opened following her death. While it contained a stack of monthly statements going back several years documenting the purchase of most of her securities, the actual securities themselves were not in the box. The heir insisted that he was entitled to the securities because the monthly statements were in the safety deposit box. He also relied on a statement Susan had made prior to her death to the effect that all the church would receive was her sweat and not her money. A state appeals court ruled that Susan’s financial assets should go to the church.

Application. Many persons leave a portion of their estate to their church. Unfortunately, as this case demonstrates, such gifts often are ambiguous and require judicial interpretation. This process not only is time-consuming, but also may require the expenditure of substantial amounts of money in attorneys’ fees. Whatever ultimately is distributed to the church may be greatly dissipated. Ambiguities are most common when people attempt to draft their own wills, using a “kit” purchased at a local office supply store. This practice should be discouraged. Adams v. Willis, 777 So.2d 5 (La. App. 2000).

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