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What is the cy-pres doctrine?

When you are creating your estate plan in Massachusetts, you have many options to consider. You can use a simple will, a trust, or even a charitable trust to manage your assets after you are gone. It is important to know the specific rules that apply to each type of estate plan before you choose which one to employ.

If you choose to create a charitable trust, you should become familiar with the cy-pres doctrine. As described in the Marquette Law Review, the cy-pres doctrine was adopted in Massachusetts in 1867. The purpose of the cy-pres doctrine (pronounced sigh pray by modern legal scholars), is to allow a trust to exist long after the person who formed the trust has died. It does this by allowing courts to alter a charitable trust when its primary purpose becomes impossible, impracticable or illegal.

In applying cy-pres, a court looks to whether a trust was formed for a charitable purpose, whether the purpose of that trust has been frustrated due to a change in circumstances and whether the trust has a general or specific charitable purpose. A change in circumstances that could frustrate the purposes of a trust is often a change in the law. A finding that the trustor had a general charitable purpose is necessary if the court is to alter the trust.

cy-pres could apply in a case where a trustor set up a charitable trust to fund a special event each year in a city, but fifty years later, the city bans that type of event. A court could determine to apply the cy-pres doctrine to allow the trust to fund a different, legal type of event to benefit the city.

Please note that this post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.

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