Charitable Gifts in Your Estate Plan: To Restrict or Not to Restrict?

Explosion_138,_Force_0Imagine you are preparing your Estate Plan.  You wish to make a gift to a certain charity –  the hospital that cured your cancer or your alma mater, for example.  You have a particular cause in mind – to support a certain physician’s research or to fund scholarships for needy students, for example.  Do you restrict the charitable gift to that particular cause?  Or do you give an unrestricted gift and allow the charity to use it for any charitable purpose?

Many clients are tempted to restrict their charitable gift.  I suspect they believe this will ensure that their gift is used in a manner that reflects their specific wishes.  But my advice is often to do the opposite – to give an unrestricted gift that allows the charity to decide how best to use it when the time comes.

There are several reasons why.  First, times change.  The passage of time or the changing of circumstances can cause restricted gifts to become outdated, impracticable, or sometimes even illegal, making the gift unusable or of less value to the charity.  Unrestricted gifts give the charity the flexibility and control to use the gift in the manner that best suits its purpose or mission.  Second, restricted gifts may generate higher administrative costs for the charity making less of your gift available to further the charity’s purpose.  Third, restricted gifts may ultimately require a court legal action by the charity – a petition for cy pres or equitable deviation – that can be a costly and time consuming distraction.

And while I strongly believe this is sound legal advice, that I stand by, it raises the risk that a donor’s gift ends up being used for a purpose wildly different from what the donor may have wanted.  And that risks upsetting a donor’s heirs or creating tension between them and the charity.

Here is an interesting case study.  The University of New Hampshire has recently taken a lot of heat for its use of a large, unrestricted charitable gift from the Estate of Robert Morin.  Morin spent his career working as a UNH librarian.  I doubt he was highly paid, but he was secretly a “millionaire next door” and left his $4 million fortune to UNH without restrictions.

As it was legally entitled to do, UNH used the gift as it saw fit.  $100,000 went to the library, $2.5 million went to upgrade the UNH career center, and $1 million went to purchase a new high-definition video scoreboard for the UNH Wildcats’ stadium.  The rest is still unallocated.  UNH had spent the last several years upgrading its football program and stadium, and the purchase of the scoreboard was I assume an expense that UNH believed was important for raising the school’s stature.

Many have objected to the purchase of the scoreboard as antithetical to the way Morin lived his life.  But this is not the legal standard.  What UNH did was not illegal or even unethical.  Also, there is no real evidence that Morin would have disagreed.  He could have restricted his gift, but chose not to.

When making charitable gifts in your Estate Plan, consider carefully whether to restrict them.  And if restrictions are important to you, there may be a way to work closely with the charitable institution to accomplish your goals, without limiting its opportunities.

Image from wikipedia, Erie Explosion v. Fayetteville Force.

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