Most non-attorneys are unfamiliar with the doctrine of cy pres. According to this Norman French doctrine, common law courts can apply a person’s charitable donation to its next best use if the original donative purpose is legally impossible to meet. It may also apply to probate transfers if the original purpose is impossible to fulfill. For example, if you set aside a $100 donation to a charitable human society which no longer exists upon your death, a court may uphold the cy pres doctrine and use your donation for another charitable purpose. Thus, a court applying the cy pres doctrine will give your donation to another charity with similar missions. Stemming from ecclesiastical law, the application of this doctrine depends on state law. Although the doctrine typically applies to probate or testamentary transfers, it may apply to other scenarios. Some states have applied the cy pres doctrine to class action settlement awards.
In most cases, the cy pres doctrine is applicable when a person’s original donative gift cannot be fulfilled as specifically intended but can be used for another similar purpose. To help achieve a person’s charitable testamentary purpose, your state’s probate courts may invoke the cy pres doctrine in limited circumstances.
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