Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Perils of Ruling From the Grave

Illinois lawyer Joel Schoenmeyer in his October 11 post "Charitable Bequest Problem: Yale, the Pequot Library, and Christopher Columbus" on his blog "Death and Taxes - The Blog" discusses the practical problems that can occur when a benefactor places well intentioned conditions on a gift without fully considering the difficulties the beneficiary may face in honouring the conditions. The following is an excerpt:

Some people also place conditions on charitable bequests, in an attempt to restrict how a charitable beneficiary uses the bequest. That's what happened in the case of Mary C. Wakeman, who left a collection with 212 books and 43 manuscripts to the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, with the requirement that the collection "be preserved intact and fully insured." (Ms. Wakeman's case is discussed in detail in this article.)

There are two problems with the above requirement: (a) it's impractical, and (b) it may not be representative of Ms. Wakeman's real intent. The requirement is impractical because the Pequot Library is small, and doesn't have the resources to care for the collection (which is why the collection has been on loan to Yale University for more than 50 years). Furthermore, if Ms. Wakeman really intended to benefit the Pequot Library, the requirement could do more harm than good. As the above article points out, the collection includes a letter written by Christopher Columbus, which may have a value of more than $1 million. By selling this letter -- that is, by possibly violating the requirement that the collection "be preserved intact" -- the library could create a space to house the rest of the collection (and its other special collections) in an appropriate manner.

May the Pequot Library sell the letter? That's a question for the probate court to decide.

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