ESTATE BEQUESTS TO CHURCHES

Generally, a bequest to a church or denomination in a will does not create controversy. The will is usually clear, the estate administrator follows clear instructions in the will, and other beneficiaries act reasonably. However, sometimes life events outpace both the elderly person and the will left behind to identify the recipients of their final gifts.

In Estate of Stumm, Slip Op. (NJ App. 2019), the will was written in the last decade but before the testator died the local church dissolved which was the object of a bequest. The denomination made a claim to the bequest as successor of the local church. The administrator of the Estate, however, sought court interpretation of the will. The administrator also argued the testator’s intent was that the successor of the local church would be the local church that took over the dissolved churches’ ministry, members and mission. Further, the administrator and other witnesses testified the testator held the denomination in disdain and would never have intended for the denomination to be the successor. The trial court held that because the local church named in the will dissolved before the testator died, neither the dissolved local church nor the successor denomination could inherit the bequest. The appellate court affirmed and held the dissolved local church ceased to exist before the bequest became a vested right or property. Therefore, the denomination had nothing to which to succeed. Also, another local church took over the ministry, members and mission of the dissolved church. Indeed, that church ministered to the testator as an elderly shut in and then officiated at her funeral.

Bequests placed in wills for churches should also name a successor. Assuming the church named in the bequest will exist at the time of death is no longer a safe assumption, if it ever was. People sometimes outlive them. Many denominations operate trust funds committed to local church needs and such a trust or foundation may be a natural successor to select if the denomination is not the preferred successor.

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