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What is the cy pres doctrine in estate planning?

On Behalf of | May 25, 2022 | Estate Planning

If a loved one left a will they wrote themselves or maybe with the help of an online “do-it-yourself” will-maker, there could be some issues – even if they had it witnessed and notarized so that it’s a valid document. It’s not uncommon for people to include instructions that are clear to them but less so to those tasked with administering their estate.

For example, maybe your loved one left their prized 1966 Mustang to “my brother-in-law Bill,” but they have two brothers-in-law named Bill, both of whom appreciate classic cars. Whom did they mean? 

On the other hand, maybe they left a sizable donation to the Foggy Hills Animal Shelter, but there’s no shelter with precisely that name. Which of the several similarly named shelters did they want to receive their largesse? What if they left money to a charity that’s no longer around?

“As close as possible”

That’s where the cy pres doctrine comes in. The full name is actually “cy pres comme possible” which in French means “as close as possible.” The doctrine gives courts the authority to interpret to the best of their ability what the deceased meant or fulfill their wishes as closely as possible. For example, if a charity is no longer around, they can designate another organization dedicated to the same work. 

The cy pres doctrine can be used for wills, trusts and other estate documents. It can also be used when class action lawsuit awards or settlements are placed in a trust. For example, if the award isn’t large enough to disburse among all the claimants, a judge may decide to give it to an appropriate non-profit organization instead. 

Estate planning guidance can prevent the need for court interpretation

Much of the need for the courts to get involved in interpreting your wishes can be eliminated if you have experienced legal guidance developing your estate plan and you review it regularly and update it as necessary. This can help you eliminate vague or incorrect names or language that will only result in more time, money and conflicts for your loved ones. It will also help ensure that your wishes are carried out as you intend – not as a court interprets them.