Beware of Testamentary Bequests

Charities Beware of Testamentary Bequests: The Cy Pres Doctrine

The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision in SPCA Wildlife Care Center v. Abraham, 75 So. 3d 1271 (Fla. 4thDCA 2011) reminds us that even a vaguely worded testamentary gift can be enforced, even if the named charity does not exist or the charitable intent of the testator is not worded as specifically as required.

What is the Cy Pres Doctrine? It is a principle that equity will turn a general charitable intent of a settlor to a specific one.  It will, when an original specific intent becomes impracticable or impossible to fulfill, substitute an alternate plan of administration which is as close as possible to the original scheme.  This comes up in cases where the institution or corporation has ceased to exist at the time of the testator’s death.  Further, it will not apply when the actual provisions of the will can be carried out. The Florida Trust Code has set this forth in Fla. Stat. §736.0413.

InSPCA Wildlife, the decedent, Ms. Ericson, executed a will that created a trust for her friend, Ms. Brown, and on Ms. Brown’s death, the trust’s remaining assets were to be distributed to the “International Wildlife Society”.

This sounded great, except for one problem – there was no such thing as the “International Wildlife Society”.

Ms. Brown explained to the trial court that it was Ms. Ericson’s intent to have the trust’s assets go to an animal organization that would care for animals and which destruction of animals was only a last resort.  When clarification of the trust was brought to the trial court, several charities were notified and given an opportunity to participate and respond.  The SPCA Wildlife Center was one of them, who argued that the cy pres doctrine applied and it should be the one to receive the trust’s assets.  The trial court disagreed, and ruled that the bequest was vague, that it failed, and that no charity was to get the trust assets.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court.  It explained the meaning of the Cy Pres Doctrine, which principle, as explained above, allows the testamentary scheme to be followed as closely as possible in certain situations.  Florida courts will not allow a devise to fail based on a misnomer.  In SPCA Wildlife, the trial court erred by not taking evidence, relying on affidavits, and in improperly construing that the residue of the trust would pass by way of intestacy instead of to a charitable organization for animals. Clearly that was not the decedent’s intent, and clearly, the trial court should have taken evidence from the various interested parties – i.e., organizations for the benefit of animals – to demonstrate why the cy pres doctrine would or should apply in their favor.

If you are faced with a will or trust that includes ambiguities, including one containing a provision for the benefit of charities, you should speak with an experienced probate and trust lawyer who can appropriately advise you.