SPCA Wildlife Care Center v. Abraham, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 6183491 (Fla 4th DCA Dec 14, 2011)

South Florida Wildlife Center’s mission is to protect wildlife through rescue, rehabilitation, and education. They serve the tri-county area of Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade.

We all know charities are struggling to stay afloat these days, which means they’re asserting themselves in court to a degree unheard of a generation ago (a topic of frequent discussion on this blog, click here). In the linked-to case above several charities, including the SPCA Wildlife Care Center (a Broward County animal shelter affiliated with the Humane Society), found themselves unexpectedly pushed into a corner by a probate court’s insistence on adjudicating an issue no one asked it to rule on (lesson learned: always expect the unexpected when setting foot in a courtroom).

The question before the 4th DCA in the linked-to case above was whether a person’s vaguely worded testamentary gift to charity can be enforced even if the named charity doesn’t exist or the testatrix’s charitable intent isn’t worded as specifically as usually required for testamentary bequests. The trial court said NO. On appeal, the 4th DCA said YES, siding with the charity and reversing the trial court’s decision based on the “cy-près” doctrine.

“Cy-près” Doctrine:

“Cy-près” is an old Norman French term meaning “as near as possible” or “as near as may be.” When the original objective of the settlor or the testator becomes impossible, impracticable, or illegal to perform, the cy-près doctrine allows a court to amend the terms of a charitable trust as closely as possible to the original intention of the testator or settlor to prevent the trust from failing. For example, in Jackson v. Phillips, (1867) 96 Mass. 539, the testator bequeathed to trustees money to be used to “create a public sentiment that will put an end to negro slavery in this country.” After slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the funds were applied cy-près to the “use of necessitous persons of African descent in the city of Boston and its vicinity.”

Although unstated in the link-to 4th DCA opinion, the “cy-près” doctrine has been codified in Florida as part of our Trust Code at F.S. 736.0413. This provision is loosely based on section 413 of the Uniform Trust Code.

Case Study:

In the linked-to case above the decedent, Mary Ericson, executed a will that created a trust for the life-time benefit of her close friend, Emma Brown. Upon Ms. Brown’s death, the trust’s remaining assets were to be distributed to the “International Wildlife Society.” This is all fine, except there’s no such thing as the “International Wildlife Society.” So does the charitable bequest fail?

According to Ms. Brown, “it was the intent of the decedent, Mary Ericson, to have the trust assets distributed to a local Broward County, Florida benevolent animal organization which would attempt to aid and care for animals and not consider destruction of animals except as a last resort.” Ms. Brown further attested that the decedent “often spoke of the Humane Society [of] Broward County.”

When the trust was brought before the court for clarification, several charities were notified and given an opportunity to file responses. One of these charities, the SPCA Wildlife Care Center, filed a response asserting that the assets of the testamentary trust should be distributed to it based on the cy-près doctrine. For some unexplained reason the trial court took it upon itself to simply rule the trust’s residuary bequest was vague, and thus “failed”. In other words, NO charity gets anything. What?! That logic may apply to non-charitable bequests, but not to charities. That’s what the cy pres doctrine is all about; fixing vague charitable bequests. Fortunately, the 4th DCA “got it,” reversing the trial court’s order based on the following analysis.

The cy pres doctrine is the principle that equity will [a] make specific a general charitable intent of a settlor, and will, [b] when an original specific intent becomes impossible or impracticable to fulfill, substitute another plan of administration which is believed to approach the original scheme as closely as possible. Christian Herald Ass’n v. First Nat’l Bank of Tampa, 40 So.2d 563, 568 (Fla .1949). The doctrine is often applied where the named beneficiary is a corporation or institution that has ceased to exist at the time of the testator’s death. See, e.g., Lewis v. Gaillard, 61 Fla. 819, 842–43, 56 So. 281, 288 (1911) (applying the cy pres doctrine and holding that the Florida State College for Women was entitled to receive income from the testator’s estate, even though the testator’s will named the college’s predecessor institution, West Florida Seminary, as the beneficiary); Christian Herald, 40 So.2d at 568 (holding where testator devised property to dissolved charitable corporation, the successor in interest of the dissolved corporation became entitled to such property under the cy pres doctrine). Florida courts have held that “the misnomer of a devisee will not cause the devise to fail where the identity of the devisee can be identified with certainty.” Humana, Inc. v. Estate of Scheying, 483 So.2d 113, 114 (Fla. 2d DCA 1986). The cy pres doctrine, however, does not apply when the provisions of the will can be carried out, such as where the will provides an alternative that can be performed. See Jewish Guild for the Blind v. First Nat’l Bank in St. Petersburg, 226 So.2d 414, 416 (Fla. 2d DCA 1969); see also Sheldon v. Powell, 99 Fla. 782, 794, 128 So. 258, 263 (1930).

In the present case, the trial court erred in sua sponte determining that the residue of the testamentary trust would pass by intestacy instead of to a charitable organization for the benefit of animals. The hearing was not scheduled as an evidentiary hearing, and the only extrinsic evidence in the record on the issue of the decedent’s testamentary intent consists of the affidavits of the income beneficiary and the attorney who prepared the will. Those would suggest that the court could fashion an alternative plan to effectuate the intent of the testator, where the testator’s intent to provide for a charitable bequest to animals, and not to benefit any relatives or other parties, was express. Thus, there was not any evidentiary support for the trial court’s conclusion that the residuary clause in Article Six, Paragraph C, of the will should fail.

From the language of the will and the affidavits in the record, it appears that the decedent had a general charitable intent for the residue of her testamentary trust to pass to a charitable organization for the benefit of animals. Even if it cannot be determined which organization the testator had in mind, the interested parties should have the opportunity to present evidence to demonstrate that the cy pres doctrine should apply and permit distribution to a claimant or claimants which can fulfill the original intent of the bequest as closely as possible. Based on the foregoing, we reverse and remand for an evidentiary hearing.