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New Jersey Doctrine of Probable Intent further clarified for charitable gifts

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New Jersey Doctrine of Probable Intent further clarified for charitable gifts

What happens if I make a gift to a charity under my estate plan and the charity goes away?

Many clients make charitable bequest under their estate plan. A common question of those clients is what if the charity isn’t around when I pass? New Jersey and most states use the doctrine of cy pres in such an instance to direct the bequest. A recent Appellate case in New Jersey has further clarified how the intent of the decedent is used to identify the appropriate charity.

The New Jersey Appellate Court determined a decedent’s probable intent through discerning the probable meaning of her words and phrases under the document in In re Estate of DeConca, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 579, 2020 WL 1492556 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Mar. 27, 2020). The case rose from uncertainty on the part of the fiduciary as to whether a local or national charity was the rightful beneficiary under a trust.

The Appellate Court upheld the determination of the Trial Court by looking at New Jersey statutes on probable intent in instances of ambiguity. The doctrine permits reformation of certain estate planning documents by searching out the probable meaning intended by the words and phrases of the document.

The Appellate Court held the focus on the decedent’s probable intent through extrinsic evidence appropriate. It noted the change of an address in documents from the national address to a local address indicative of the decedent’s probable intent. The Appellate Judge further relied upon evidence of lifetime gifts by the decedent to the local charity and that the decedent possessed the national address but did not include it as support of probable intent.

This case reaffirms another recently decided case where a woman attended a local Presbyterian church and gave a part of her estate to a local church.  In In re Estate of Stumm,  2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1954; 2019 WL 4620342 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Sept. 24, 2019), Certif., Denied, 241 N.J. 341 (2020) the Appellate Courts had concluded, based on the decedent’s intent, she wanted her bequest to go to the local church, not the national church.

In the Stumm case, the testator had prepared her will in 2010 to give part of her estate to her local church. Her local church had dissolved in 2014 and the majority of the congregants moved over to another local church. She was declared mentally incapacitated in 2015 and passed in 2016.  The national church contended it was entitled to the assets of the named beneficiary, the dissolved church. However, the church where the congregates had moved, including the place where the decedents’ funeral was held, contended it should be the recipient of the bequest. Once again, the Appellate Court affirmed the conclusions of the trial court had relied on the probable intent of the decedent.

These clarifications through New Jersey case law are helpful, but cannot replace the best evidence in estate planning, well documented contingent plans.

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