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What is the cy pres doctrine?

Many people in Fresno County have probably heard of trusts, and some may even themselves have created a trust or intend to do so as part of their estate planning strategy.

In many ways, trusts are similar to wills with respect to how they get interpreted, but in other respects, they work a little bit differently. For instance, courts are likely to give a more liberal interpretation to trusts, perhaps because, more so than wills, trusts are considered "equitable" instruments that are designed to carry out the intention of the person who created the trust.

This may be one reason why courts are willing to use the cy pres doctrine to change trusts such as charitable trusts, under certain circumstances. This doctrine does not give people, even judges, the ability just to change the terms of the trust so that the trust is to their liking.

For one, in order to use the cy pres doctrine, there has to be a fundamental problem with the way the trust is written. For instance, a particular provision in the trust has to be impossible to carry out or against the law. In some situations, cy pres can also be used when a provision cannot be carried out without an unreasonable amount of cost and effort, even if the action contemplated could, in theory, be done.

Furthermore, the cy pres doctrine requires a court to reform a trust so as to reflect the true intention of the person who created the trust "as closely as possible," which is the literal meaning of the word cy pres. So, for example, if the person's trust gave money to the person's favorite animal shelter which closed down, reforming the trust so the money goes to another animal shelter might be permissible, but doing so to have the money go to a museum or even a homeless shelter or soup kitchen might not be.

It is important for people in Fresno County to remember the cy pres doctrine, particularly if they are ever facing a question about a trust provision being impossible to carry out. Questions about how the cy pres doctrine would work in a specific case are best directed to a California attorney with experience in trust administration.

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