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What is the cy-pres doctrine?

The cy-pres doctrine is employed when the original charitable purpose of a charitable trust is no longer possible to carry out. Because charitable trusts can continue on into perpetuity, it is not uncommon for trusts to outgrow or outlive their original purposes. When this happens, the court will usually intervene by way of the cy-pres doctrine in order to apply the trust funds in a way that is as nearly like the original charitable purpose as possible.

In order to invoke the cy-pres doctrine, two primary conditions must be present. First, the designated original purpose of the trust must be either fulfilled or frustrated. In other words, the purpose of the trust must have been accomplished completely, or the purpose of the trust must be either impossible or impractical to continue carrying out or illegal. It is not sufficient if only a better purpose has revealed itself over time.

Second, it must be clear in the trust documentation that the creator of the trust intended his or her gift for a specific charitable purpose. In other words, the charitable intent must have been general as opposed to restricted. If the charitable donor intended his or her gift for a specific charity, without regard for any change in circumstances, then cy-pres cannot be invoked.

If the court rules positively on both the above two conditions, then the trust funds can be re-directed to another charitable purpose in line with the donor's initial intention. In the event that one or the other conditions is not present, then the contents of the trust will revert back to the donor and/or the donor's successors.

In many cases, it is not very difficult to invoke cy-press if it makes sound and logical sense to do so. However, depending which side of the argument one happens to be on, it may be necessary to assert one's opinion in court. In doing so, a New York resident can strive to protect the intentions of a charitable trust and its creator, be those intentions general or limited in terms of the overall purpose and vision that went behind the trust's creation.

Source: National Paralegal, "Modification of Charitable Trusts—The Cy Pres Doctrine" Oct. 13, 2014

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