What to do with an Old Bequest but no record of the Donor’s Wishes?

There is a big problem in the church world with leadership relying on their memory for donor restrictions. This is a problem because donor restrictions are legally enforceable and our memory is…less than completely reliable. I’ve been working with churches for the last 14 years and have been part of a handful of meetings where the donor past away a long time ago, and the church just looks to the oldest member to recite the donor intent. Not only do they recite the donor intent, they are the sole interpreters of the donor intent.

Eventually someone will challenge this tradition and want to see the restriction in writing. While some churches keep excellent permanent records, it’s not uncommon that after 20, 30, or 40 years the written donor restrictions have been lost, thrown out, or destroyed. After the church has looked everywhere with no success in finding the bequest or letter with the donor restriction, what do they do?

  • Check the Courthouse: The will should be in their records. I’m not exactly sure what the process is for getting ahold of an old will or if there is a cost. It should be in the courthouse where the person lived or held property.
  • Recheck your Records: If the courthouse doesn’t have a copy, look for anything in old minutes within a two to three year period of when the church received the gift. Also, try looking up the obituary. Perhaps that will lead to a different courthouse that may have settled the estate.
  • Visit with the Family: Explain the situation that church doesn’t have any written record of their relatives wishes for the gift, but the church wants to honor their intent. It’s possible that the family has a copy of the will. That would be the first priority. If you still come up empty, asking the family what they believed the intent was is an option.
  • Board Vote: If there’s no written record and no family, the board should just vote on what they believe the donor restriction is. This would not be legally binding, but it would be respectful of the donor.

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