The Cy Pres Doctrine
The term ‘cy pres’ is derived from an old, French phrase, “cy pres comme possible.” The English-to-French translation means, “as close as possible.” Used in law, cy pres can be applied to legal cases in which an estate cannot be resolved because the decedent’s wishes can no longer be carried out. If, for instance, a deceased person intended to leave a cash gift to a preferred charity, but that charity is no longer active when probate begins, the court may exercise its discretion to honor the decedent’s intent.
The Internal Revenue Service provides specific guidance on cy pres charitable donations, saying that a state-level probate court may “substitute another charitable object which is believed to approach the original charitable purpose as closely as possible.”
The Purpose of Cy Pres
A will, trust, or other estate planning document could be contested if significant circumstantial changes negate or nullify its intent. However, California typically presumes that most adults have the legal capacity to make their own estate planning decisions. If an estate cannot be distributed as defined in the estate documents, the court may act on a cy pres petition. This allows the judiciary to adhere to a decedent’s wishes instead of voiding their estate plan and resolving an estate through intestate proceedings.
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