In the 1980’s Florida philanthropist Edwin H. Bower made large charitable donations to the Foundation for the Developmentally Disabled, Inc. (the “Foundation”) through his charitable foundation, The Bower Foundation. Mr. Bower intended that his donations be used to acquire land and construct a facility to benefit pre-school-aged children with disabilities who participated in a program referred to as Step by Step. However, he never created a written trust or gift agreement when he made those donations. Mr. Bower died in 2003.

Foundation For Developmentally Disabled, Inc. v. Step By Step Early Childhood Educ. And Therapy Center, Inc., — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 1135901 (Fla. 2d DCA Mar 26, 2010)

A dispute arose over whether Step by Step was entitled to rent-free use of the facility specifically constructed for it with Mr. Bower’s donations. In the absence of a gift or trust agreement supporting Step by Step’s claim to rent-free use of its facility, The Bower Foundation argued the existence of an implied trust under all three of the following theories:

  1. Implied charitable trust
  2. Resulting trust
  3. Constructive trust

The 2d DCA shot down all three arguments. If a disgruntled donor asks you to consider suing a charity in the absence of a a written trust or gift agreement, you’ll want to consider these arguments and understand why they failed in this case. Here’s how the 2d DCA explained Florida law on all three:

[1] No implied charitable trust:

The Fifth District addresses a similar situation in Persan v. Life Concepts, Inc., 738 So.2d 1008, 1009 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999),[FN3] where a group of about twenty donors gave land to the Central Florida Sheltered Workshop, Inc. (“CFSW”), so that living facilities could be constructed for disadvantaged adults. CFSW also solicited the community for $200,000 to pay for the construction of the homes. Id. After the homes were operated for approximately fifteen years, a decision was made to sell the property. Id. As in the present case, there was evidence presented at trial that the donors gave the land with the intent that the land be used for the specific purpose of providing living facilities for disadvantaged adults, but a written trust was never created. Id. at 1010. In Persan, the court noted that there was no evidence of an intent to create any type of trust and that the evidence established only an intent to donate land and money for the homes to be constructed. Id. In holding that a charitable trust was not created, the court stated as follows:

Making a gift to a charity for a specific project or purpose does not create a charitable trust. For this court to suggest that it does would create havoc for charitable institutions. A charity has to be able to know when a donation is a gift and when it is merely an offer to fund a trust for which the charity is taking on fiduciary responsibilities. The creation of such a trust must be express.


[FN3.] In its amicus brief, the [Florida Attorney General] contends that Persan v. Life Concepts, Inc., 738 So.2d 1008, 1009 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999), was wrongly decided. However, it acknowledges that in the ten years following the decision in Persan, the legislature has made no changes to Florida law regarding constructive and resulting trusts.

[2] No resulting trust:

The Fifth District further concluded that a resulting trust was not established. “The evidentiary burden to prove a resulting trust is ‘clear, strong and unequivocal,’ beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. To establish a resulting trust, the parties must “actually intend to create the trust relationship but fail to execute documents or establish adequate evidence of the intent.” Wadlington v. Edwards, 92 So.2d 629, 631 (Fla.1957). A typical example of a resulting trust is where one party “furnishes the money to buy a parcel of land in the name of another with both parties intending at the time that the legal title is held by the named grantee for the benefit of the unnamed beneficiary.” Id.

A resulting trust arises when the legal estate in property is disposed of, conveyed or transferred, but the intent appears or is inferred from the terms of the disposition, or from accompanying facts and circumstances, that the beneficial interest is not to go to or be enjoyed with the legal title. In such a case a trust is implied or results in favor of the person whom equity deems to be the real owner.

Howell v. Fiore, 210 So.2d 253, 255 (Fla. 2d DCA 1968).

In the case at bar, there was no evidence that the parties intended to create a trust relationship. In fact, the evidence was to the contrary-that Mr. Bower did not intend that his gifts to the Foundation be held in trust. Consequently, the trial court erred in finding that Step By Step established that there was a resulting trust as to the property.

[3] No constructive trust:

Unlike a resulting trust, a constructive trust does not have the element of intent or an agreement, either oral or written, to create a trust relationship. Wadlington, 92 So.2d at 631. “The trust is ‘constructed’ by equity to prevent an unjust enrichment of one person at the expense of another as the result of fraud, undue influence, abuse of confidence or mistake in the transaction that originates the problem.” Id. Here, there was no evidence of fraud, undue influence, abuse of confidence or mistake in the transaction. As a result, the trial court also erred in finding that there was a constructive trust between the parties.

Lesson learned?

The big take-away from this case for potential plaintiffs is that absent a written trust or gift agreement, don’t waste time and money on a lawsuit; donors should expect they’ll have little to no say over how charities administer their donations once the gift is made – unless they document that retained right in a written trust or gift agreement. Here’s how the 2d DCA made this general point:

We note the inherent problems that would be created if an individual who donates to a charitable organization with merely a stated intent that the donation be used for a specific purpose were able to control, or their heirs were able to control, that corporation in perpetuity. Although The Bower Foundation donated a significant amount of money to the Foundation, it was a small percentage of the money the Foundation used to construct and expand the facility. The board of directors of a nonprofit corporation has the responsibility to determine what is in the best interest of the corporation going forward, and therefore, absent a written trust agreement, it should not be bound by the intent of donors who gave many years ago when such is no longer in the best interest of the corporation.

What can charities do to avoid disputes?

The last thing a charity wants is to waste precious resources on litigation or alienate future donors as a result of a dispute over how a past donation is being administered. So what could the charities in this case have done differently? Good question. And the authors of The Unraveling of Donor Intent: Lawsuits and Lessons provide some solid answers. If you work with charities the article is well worth reading in its entirety. As to the specific question of what the charities could have done differently in this case, the authors recommend the following:

It is almost inevitable that charities will experience a need to make changes to long-term gifts. The need for change may result for a variety of reasons. The gift’s purpose may no longer effectively support the charity’s mission; the cost to administer the gift may outweigh the charitable benefits of the gift or the lack of funds may cause harm to the gift property; or the charity’s needs have dramatically shifted so that the gift revenue is no longer needed (or no longer needed at the level provided). When problems arise, charities should understand the options for resolution. In order of facility, those include: 1) change of gift terms negotiated with living donors; 2) provision for change pursuant to the gift agreement; 3) relief under the de minimus provisions of the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act; or 4) court approved changes.

[1.] Negotiating change of purpose with living donors. While donors who make gifts relinquish all control over contributed property, the provisions of UMIFA and UPMIFA allow charities to negotiate a change of purpose in long-term gift agreements with living donors. This means charities with living-donor gift may have the opportunity to examine existing documents renegotiate gift terms to provide flexibility over time, a moderation of purpose, or an alternative purpose if they act in a timely manner. This approach not only honors donor intent, but positions the charity as accountable and a good steward for the gift’s life. It is also the option with the lowest expense ratio.

[2.] Making changes pursuant to terms of the gift agreement. If possible, gift agreements should contain flexibility to make non-judicial changes with an emphasis on the triggers for change and clear direction on how that decision is made. For planners, this adds an extraordinary drafting challenge since it is difficult to take the gift through a period of 10, 25, 50 or even 100 years without knowing the environmental, cultural, and economic changes that will occur over that time. The alternatives may include secondary uses for the gift at the same institution, a gift over transferring proceeds to a succeeding charitable institution, or other creative alternatives.

The document should designate individuals responsible for making changes to the gift purpose. This group may be the same group set out in the paragraph above (who determine it is time to make a change) or it may be a different group. The document should also designate the type of changes that are appropriate without court approval, and what to do if there is conflict among the appointed group. Placing discretion in a group qualified to make those decisions based on the facts and circumstances at the time is a principal used in multi-generational trusts and makes those trusts effective long after the grantor is there to make decisions.

[3.] Seeking relief under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA). In 1972, the Uniform Management of Institutional Funds Act (UMIFA) was adopted at the 1972 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. UMIFA (and its successor UPMIFA), adopted in whole or in part by all states except Alaska and Pennsylvania, governs long-term funds held by charitable institutions. Section Seven of the model statute permitted a “release of limitations that imperil efficient administration of a fund or prevent sound investment management if the governing board can secure the approval of the donor or the appropriate court” and had four parts:

  • Restrictions can be released with the written consent of the donor.
  • If the donor’s written consent cannot be obtained, a court of appropriate jurisdiction can release the restriction if the restriction “is obsolete inappropriate, or impracticable.”
  • A release cannot change the use of the funds to non-charitable purposes.
  • The section does not limit the court’s application of the cy pres doctrine.

In July 2006, The Commissioners on Uniform State Laws approved a revised version of UMIFA entitled the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA) that made changes in areas from investment management standards, to provisions allowing the release of gift restrictions under certain circumstances. UPMIFA is rapidly replacing UMIFA across the country; more than 43 states have adopted a version of UPMIFA at last count [but NOT Florida].

UPMIFA expanded the power to release or modify donor gift restrictions in Section 6, allowing change under four circumstances:

  • Donor release: “With the donor’s consent in a record”, the charity can release a restriction in whole or in part, so long as the gift is still used for the organization’s charitable purposes.
  • Doctrine of deviation: If a modification to a gift agreement/document will enhance the furtherance of the donor’s purposes, or a restriction is “impracticable or wasteful and impairs the management or investment of the fund”, the charity can ask a court to modify the restriction. The Attorney General must be notified and allowed to be heard, and the modification must reflect the donor’s “probable intention.”
  • Doctrine of cy pres: If the purpose or restriction becomes “unlawful, impracticable, impossible to achieve, or wasteful”, the court may use the cy pres doctrine to modify the fund purposes. The Attorney General must be notified and allowed to be heard.
  • Small funds: For funds with a value less than $25,00036 that have been in place more than 20 years, court action is not required if the charity determines a restriction is “unlawful, impracticable, impossible to achieve, or wasteful” so long as the charity waits 60 days after notice to the state Attorney General of the intention to make the change, and the change is designed to be a good faith reflection of the expressed charitable purposes.

[4.] Seeking court approved changes. Although court action is generally perceived to the action of last resort, it may be the charity’s only solution when resolution is not available through one of the options above. Generally the state Attorney General will be a party to the action to represent the public’s charitable interests. These hearings may not only be costly, but unpredictable. (See the result in the Fisk/Georgia O’Keeffe Museum dispute described earlier.) Ultimately, the decision to seek court approval is a decision to make with legal counsel considering the burden or problems with the gift terms, the donor and donor family’s response, the public’s reaction to the request, and the potential downside if the court makes a ruling counter to the charity’s goals.