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Creating charitable trusts can be very complex

In 1639, Gardiner's Island in East Hampton, New York, was purchased by an English settler from the Montaukett Indians. The buyer was given the title of the "Lord of the Manor" in a English charter, along with the "right to possess the land forever."

Sagtikos Manor is located on the island and had a historic house where Pres. George Washington once slept. In 1947, that house burned, but another was built the same year. It stands today.

The island property was left to siblings Robert (Bob) David Lion Gardiner and Alexandra Gardiner Creel. Bob gave tours of the property and perceived himself as the family historian. The Sagitkos Manor Historical Society also gave tours and maintained the property. Bob, however, was concerned that family on his sister's side wanted to sell the island. For about 30 years, Bob fought over who owned the property.

A charitable foundation was established in 1985, and Bob put the manor in trust to the foundation. The purpose of the foundation was to educate the public about the area's history. In 2002, the foundation sold the house to Suffolk County. The Sagitkos Manor Historical Society didn't know about the sale when it happened, but later, it would continue to preserve and maintain the manor through an agreement with the county.

Bob's estate was left in trust for his wife when he died in 2004. When she died in 2011, there was $80 million in the trust, which went to the foundation. The historical society, though, believed that the trustees of the foundation were stealing from the trust and asked the foundation to give an account. That request was rejected because neither Bob's will nor trust named the historical society as a beneficiary.

The historical society sued the foundation. They wanted a declaratory judgment that the true charitable purpose of the foundation was to preserve the manor and the historical society was supposed to be a beneficiary. The foundation believed there was no standing by the historical society and asked for the case to be dismissed. The court denied the motion, so the foundation filed an appeal. The appeals court ruled that those who aren't beneficiaries lack standing and aren't able to commence an enforcement action. The historical society wasn't a clearly or sharply defined class with standing.

Understanding charitable trusts can be complicated, as you can see. An attorney is your best source of information.

Source: Wealth Management, "No Standing to Enforce a Charitable Trust," John T. Brooks and Jena L. Levin, Aug. 25, 2015

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