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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Pledges to charity can cause probate issues

Although in many cases probate litigation starts because of a disagreement between family members and other heirs, several previous posts here have discussed situations in which there can be a probate-related lawsuit even though family members and loved ones are all in agreement on how to handle an estate.

For example, many wealthy residents of Saint Paul, Minnesota, may near the ends of their lives want to give substantial donations to charity. While this is simple enough to account for when the resident gives up front, many times a donor will offer a pledge to a charity, effectively promising regular payment over time or promising payment at a future time.

The trend in the law across the United States is to treat these sorts of pledges as enforceable promises, even though they might not meet the traditional requirements of a "contract," that is, a binding legal agreement in which there is at least some give and take between the charity and the donor. Basically, courts are likely to assume that a charity relies on the promises of its donors, and that not enforcing a formal pledge to donate can cause a real hardship on a charity that was counting on the money.

The upshot of this is that, for many Minnesota probate estates, a charity is likely to come forward and demand that the estate make good on a deceased person's promise to make a future donation or ongoing payments. While the concern will be that these sorts of pledges are enforceable, the facts and circumstances of an individual case, as well as the details of Minnesota law, will ultimately determine the outcome.

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