Too Much Money and No One to Give it to- The Cy Pres Doctrine

What happens when someone leaves money in a will to a charity that has closed its doors by the time the will is probated? In this strange circumstance, a court may apply the “cy pres doctrine” to answer this question. Cy pres is a French term which loosely translates to mean “as near as possible.” In modern litigation, cy pres is not only used to distribute charitable donations, but also to distribute millions of dollars left over in class action settlements.

In the example above, a court may use cy pres to transfer the donated money to a charity similar to the one that had shut down. In class actions, there are often funds left over when not enough people register to receive money under a settlement. In this situation, the court will use cy pres to decide where this money goes; but that decision is a tricky one. Courts will sometimes direct these funds to a governmental entity loosely related to what the lawsuit was about. Other times these funds will go to a charity. Whatever the choice, there are usually complaints.

In one case, a nationwide class of AOL customers agreed to a settlement in a class action filed in California. Even though class members lived all over the country, the cy pres funds went to a legal aid office in Los Angeles, where the judge’s husband served as a director. This raised some eyebrows.

In another case, Kellogg’s settled a class action filed because its advertisements claimed that frosted mini-wheats improved kids’ brain power, which -sadly- turned out not to be true. Those cy pres funds initially went to a charity designed to feed the poor. However, the court later ruled that the funds should have gone to a group that protected the public from false advertising.

As more and more cases like these garnered attention, rules were passed as to how to distribute these funds. Generally, these rules require some connection between the issues in the lawsuit and the mission of the group that gets the funds. While the United States Supreme Court has yet to address these issues, Chief Justice Roberts recently indicated that the Court may be ready to put its stamp on cy pres.

We may be “as near as possible” to some clarity in the murky law of cy pres.