Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sue the illegitimi


In the Sunday Washington Times I came across the column "No Will Power" by Cal Thomas (no doubt it will be posted on Townhall also by Monday morning). Mr. Thomas writes about the descendants of wealthy people who have brought various suits against universities for misapplying the funds from endowments. Rich folks died leaving large sums of money to be used for specific things, and the universities disregard the wishes of such contributors; now we wait to see what the courts will do in these cases.

Part of the column says:

The universities have no right — legal or moral — to use them for anything else. To do so violates the intent and the spirit of the gift and the giver.

There are a lot more cases like these but the operative phrase, as with so many things, is donor beware. Think twice before you give money to any charitable organization or institution — even your alma mater — unless it endorses the Donor Bill of Rights. To do otherwise and to give "in good faith" may have worked in the distant past, but not today. A few precautions can enhance the power of a will.

The precedent set by these cases will be relevant to a certain institution here in the United States called the Episcopal Church. Over the last few centuries they have horded up a fortune in endowments from people who had no intention of leaving their money to a wannebe Unitarian cult and ecclesiastical "gay bar" with priestesses who cross dress in men's vestments, and that sings "Anything Goes" instead of "Faith of our Fathers." It is safe to say that most of their endowment money has been misapplied and should be given, to be true to the wishes of those who willed the endowments, to faithful Continuing Anglican churches that still practice the Faith. Only such churches fit the description these people had in mind when leaving money to what the Episcopal Church was- as opposed to the "morphed" organization that bears no resemblance to what these deceased people understood the Church to be.

The thoughts of lawyers, such as Fr. Nalls and Fr. Hollister would be of interest here.


Anonymous said...

I have written a few volumes on this, with a bunch of news articles thrown in. Of course, these donors would be turning over in their graves. However, as I am involved in a case (or two)currently, I have to restrict comment.
Fr. Nalls

Anonymous said...

Cal Thomas's column goes to show how the present crisis of church litigation is becoming widely known.
This will probably hit conservative talk radio before long.
Our church (never a part of ECUSA) received a letter from our insurance carrier recently, helpfully pointing out that our coverage would be no good if we should be sued for schism!
Word is on the street, folks. Whereas the Episcopal Cburch used to be known as the bibulous church, now it's the litigious church. Where two or three are gathered together, there may be a lawsuit.
Laurence K. Wells

poetreader said...

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm afraid I'd counsel against leaving money or other proerties to any organization, even one that you trust implicitly at the present time, without

a. laying out clear and precise conditions under which that money can be kept and used, and

b. designating an alternate beneficiary in case those conditions cease to be met, and

c. insuring that the alternate is informed in detail as to those conditions.



Fr. Robert Hart said...

We need to watch the precedents, because we may have something to glean.

John A. Hollister said...

Fr. Hart's suggestion is a pregnant one. There will probably turn out to be some sort of "period of repose" that would protect gifts of a certain age or older from recapture by the residuary beneficiaries of the original donors, but there will also be a lot of money that has been given to ECUSA and to ECUSA's subordinate dioceses and parishes within relatively recent times that might be subject to this sort of attack.

Back when I was in law school in Massachusetts (1974-78), there was a case involving Amherst College. As I recall (I could have some of the details confused), a wealthy alumnus left a large sum of money to build a science building but the college decided it really didn't need a new science building but did need a new dorm. The donor's heirs said "no" and told the college that it could either build what the decedent had intended or it could give the money back.

Amherst went to court to try to have the doctrine of "cy pres" applied to permit it to divert the money to its preferred use. The court told it that was inapplicable as the intended use was not impossible, it simply wasn't the administration's top priority. So the college could do as the donor wanted or it could give the money to his heirs.

Oddly, the college did then find it could make room for a science building.... But the case does illustrate the principle.

What one cannot expect to happen is for the civil courts to engage in weighing whether a gift left to foster a particular type of church doctrine has been used effectively for that purpose. Also, the only parties with standing to bring such an action are those who would be able to claim the money in question under a residuary clause or similar provision.

John A. Hollister+

Anonymous said...

If you leave your money to a university for the purpose of supporting the teaching and learning of Latin and Ancient Greek, it might be considered a breach of trust if the money is taken from Classics and applied to endow a new course in postmodern deconstruction of the contemporary American Situation Comedy. Of course, if the university ceases to teach classical languages, it should apply to a Court for a ruling that would designate the nearest equivalent.

The problem with leaving your money to, say, the 'Anglican Church', is that the Court is more likely to consider the bricks, mortar and bureaucracy--the administrative superstructure, if you like--of whatever 'Anglican Church' the money was left to and to look for continuity in these rather than in the substance of the 'Anglicanism' that the particular institution provides. Australian Courts at least will shy away from theological questions, as well, perhaps, they should.

The overriding difficulty for charitable gifts and bequests is that, ultimately, there's a limit to one's ability to rule from the grave.

The Auld MacLaren said...

“It is safe to say that most of their endowment money… should be given, to be true to the wishes of those who willed the endowments, to faithful Continuing Anglican churches…”

And any meaningful effort to do that will provoke lawsuits reminiscent of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce!

“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. The scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it….” (From Dickens’ Bleak House, chapter one.)

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I see no reason why such cases would become so muddy, especially if the precedents in these university cases go in favor of the families and against the institutions that have mishandled endowments. What would be needed is family members similarly motivated.

poetreader said...

Would it perhaps be possible to set up such a bequest as a trust vested in trustees rather than in the beneficiary itself? The moneys, in this case, would not be disbursed unless the conditions of the will were met ab=nd were approved by the trustees.