The Law School Authority

La Fond v. City of Detroit Case Brief

Summary of La Fond v. City of Detroit, 357 Mich. 362, 98 N.W.2d 530 (1959)

Facts: Pls, are heirs to Ms. Sagendorph. Her will provided that the residue pass to the Df, City of Detroit, for a “playfield for white children.”  Df City passed a resolution providing that the “because of the onerous conditions imposed” the city had the right to change the bequest.   The deceased stated that the terms of her will “be carried out to the letter.”

Issue: Whether a racial restriction in a residuary trust bequest in a will renders the entire bequest void as against public policy, or whether the restriction is void and the remaining bequest is valid?

Holding: Cy pres does not apply where it is impossible to carry out the object of the bequest because of the express language used.

Procedure: Pls filed complaint in Circuit Ct Ingham Cnty to construe the residuary clause of the will as void; Df, City filed an answer, Pros Atty filed petition for leave to intervene as Df–Denied; City petitioned for prohibition and mandamus–Mi Sup. Ct denied.  Ingham Cir Ct retained jurisdiction–found cy pres does not apply where it is impossible to carry out the object of the bequest.  Affirmed.

Rule: Doctrine of Cy Pres: rule requiring liberal construction of instruments (charitable trusts), to preserve as near as possible the purposes of the donor in the event of an ambiguity, impossibility, or illegal condition.

Rationale: Under the doctrine of cy pres should be applied unless there is a manifest intention that the property should be solely used for an illegal purpose or the gift is impractical to carry out.  The general rule governing cy pres is that when the method of executing a charitable trust is impractical or illegal, then if the instrument indicates an intent by the donor to give the property for charitable purposes, regardless of the method, cy pres applies.

We agree with the trial court that the terms “for white children” are a command, and the cy pres cannot be invoked to validate the residuary request. The will does not indicate an intention to provide for general charitable purpose rather than for a particular object.  Cy pres is used to carry out the true intention of the donor and cannot be used for the purpose of eliminating the unambiguous words of the will.

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