FIFTH: I give and bequeath to the RECTOR, WARDENS AND VESTRYMEN OF THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, of 74 Conklin Avenue, Binghamton, New York 13903, the sum of One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($1,500.00), together with all my diamond, ruby and opal rings for the purpose of creating a chalice and paten with the heretofore mentioned jewels to be set into and become part of said Chalice . . .
SIXTH: All the rest, residue and remainder of my property wheresoever situate, to which I may be entitled or over which I may have any disposing power I give, devise and bequeath to my Trustee, hereinafter named, in trust, to invest and reinvest the same, to collect the income therefrom and to pay the annual income therefrom, in quarterly installments, as follows:
A. To THE ALL SAINTS MEMORIAL FUND OF THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, 74 Conklin Avenue, Binghamton, New York 13903, Twenty-Five Percent (25%) thereof . . .
. . .
Upon the death of the survivor of [names omitted], said trust shall terminate and I give, devise and bequeath the entire principal then remaining in said trust, and any accumulated and unpaid income, to the RECTOR, WARDENS AND VESTRYMEN OF THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD to be held by them as a memorial fund in memory of the persons whose names are to be inscribed on the chalice and paten, to be known as the Branan Memorial Fund. Said Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen shall hold said fund in trust nevertheless to invest and reinvest the same, to collect the income therefrom and use the income for general church purposes.
SEVENTH: In the event The Church ofthe Good Shepherd shall cease to exist or shall merge with another church, the bequests set forth in paragraphs FIFTH and SIXTH shall be to the successor by merger church or in the event said church ceases to exist such bequests shall be to the RECTOR, WARDENS AND VESTRYMEN OF CHRIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF BINGHAMTON, by whatever name known.
The parties' positions are relatively straightforward. The parties disagree as to the meaning of the phrase "shall cease to exist" as used in relation to Good Shepherd in the SEVENTH paragraph of Mr. Branan's Will. Good Shepherd argues it is still in existence and thus is entitled to remain as the beneficiary of the Branan Trust. The Diocese argues Good Shepherd no longer exists within the meaning of Branan Trust and that said trust monies should go to Christ Church as the alternate beneficiary or, in the alternative, to the Diocese itself.The question presented to this court is what was Mr. Branan's intent when he used the phrase "in the event The Church of the Good Shepherd shall cease to exist"?
Good Shepherd argues that since the sole remaining cause of action - the fourth - involves a will construction that this matter should be transferred to surrogate's court. Good Shepherd does not claim that supreme court lacks jurisdiction, only that practice dictates that a matter involving such a specialized area of the law be transferred to the court with the most experience in that area. As stated on the record during oral argument, this court finds that its extensive familiarity with this case overrides any other concerns and, as such, Good Shepherd's motion to transfer this matter to surrogate's court is denied.
The court rejects Good Shepherd's argument that additional discovery is required with respect to the fourth cause of action. Lengthy depositions and paper discovery have been exchanged in this matter which included the subject of the fourth cause of action, namely the Branan Trust. No further discovery on these issues is warranted . . . .
Good Shepherd argues that while it may have disaffiliated with The Episcopal Church such a disaffiliation does not equate to a legal dissolution. More specifically, Good Shepherd emphasizes that no formal dissolution proceedings have been initiated, let alone completed, for either a judicial or non-judicial dissolution under the Not-For-Profit Corporation Law or a dissolution under the Religious Corporation Law.The Diocese contends that Good Shepherd no longer exists within the meaning of the Branan Trust. The Diocese asserts there can be little doubt that Mr. Branan intended to benefit an Episcopal Church based upon his choice of another Episcopal Church, Christ Church, as his alternate beneficiary.
In this court's view, Mr. Branan's Last Will and Testament provides the answer to the question presented. Mr. Branan named The Church of the Good Shepherd - an Episcopal Church - as his primary trust beneficiary. Mr. Branan named Christ Church - the oldest Episcopal Church in the City of Binghamton - as his alternate beneficiary. The court finds Mr. Branan's choice of a second Episcopal Church as his alternate beneficiary most telling. Based upon this language alone, the court finds that Mr. Branan's intent was to benefit an Episcopal Church.(Emphasis added.) Oh, really? So if I leave my worldly goods to my local (currently Episcopal) church, and in case it no longer exists I specify that they go to a nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church, does that mean that if my original church joins the Southern Cone it can no longer receive my bequest, because the Southern Cone is neither African, Methodist, or Episcopal? But if it happened to affiliate with the Anglican Church of Uganda, or the Anglican Church of Kenya, then that would be OK? That is impressive reasoning, Judge Lebous.
Additionally, however, this record reflects Mr. Branan's connection to the Episcopal faith and understanding of the relationship between a local parish and the Diocese by way of his involvement with Good Shepherd during his lifetime. Mr. Branan served as Clerk of the Vestry at Good Shepherd and, in that capacity, executed applications to supreme court to sell or mortgage real property which contained recitations of Good Shepherd's relationship with the Diocese, as well as having annexed thereto the consents of the Bishop for property transactions.
Although not pertinent to the issue of the testator's intent,
the court finds instructiveI.e., what I am about to unload is the real reason for my decision:
the actions and representations of Good Shepherd and/or its former Rector Matt Kennedy. It is undisputed
that in July 2006, Good Shepherd
adopted a Resolution declaring it intended to dissociate itself from The Episcopal Church and the Diocese. On November 8, 2007, Good Shepherd
passed a resolution stating that they "[d]issociate and end our affiliation with The Episcopal Church in the United States of America and the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York and apply for membership within the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church of Kenya". Additionally, Matthew Kennedy[ah, now we've got him!]
renounced his ministry within the Diocese and The Episcopal Church.[But he retained his ministry within the Anglican Communion---oh, never mind.]
On December 9, 2008, The Church of the Good Shepherd filed a Certificate of Amendment, the sole purpose of which was to delete all references to The Episcopal Church
and stated instead that it would be in communion with the Anglican Province of Kenya.
Additionally, Mr. Kennedy's
recent statements cannot be ignored, including that "The Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd was born last week" and that "seven of your fellow parishioners ... signed (the legal papers to establish a new church corporation called The Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd" (Affidavit of Jonathan B. Fellows, Esq. sworn to March 7,2009, Exhibit J).
Finally, it is also noteworthy
that any revenue being collected during the pendency of this matter was not been funneled [sic!] to the Church of the Good Shepherd, but rather a separate entity named St. Matthias Society, Ltd.[Why, of course, Judge Lebous! All those devout Good Shepherd parishioners should have willingly turned over their contributions to the Diocese, so it would not have to draw on its own money to sue them! What a marvelous Christian concept!]
It should also go without saying[Then why are you saying it, Judge Lebous?]
that the Diocese and The Episcopal Church themselves no longer view Good Shepherd as an Episcopal parish. In fact, in November 2008, the Diocese's Annual Convention passed a resolution that Good Shepherd was no longer a parish in union with the Convention (Affidavit of Karen C. Lewis sworn to March 10, 2009, Exhibit A).[Was there some dispute here over whether the Diocese and Good Shepherd parted ways? Forgive me if I missed that point, and I'm so glad you set me straight on the facts.]
Based upon the foregoing, this Court finds that The Church of the Good Shepherd no longer exists as an Episcopal church, no longer exists in name, and no longer exists within the meaning of the Branan Trust. While The Church of the Good Shepherd may well exist in the legal world as a shell corporation that formerly held its property, but not (yet) dissolved under the auspices of the Not-For-Profit Corporation Law and/or Religious Corporation law, applying such a technical argument to Mr. Branan's intent would violate the spirit of his bequest.
Stated another way, while Good Shepherd may have abandoned the Episcopal faith,
Mr. Branan never did, and his intent was clearly
to benefit a local Episcopal Church. By all accounts,[Really? Whose accounts? Could you name some names of those who testified to that effect? I thought there was no evidence or testimony about Mr. Branan, Judge Lebous, because you decided it wasn't necessary.]
Mr. Branan was an active member of The Episcopal Church and there is simply no basis on which to find that Mr. Branan would want his money to go to those former members of The Church of the Good Shepherd that abandoned the faith that he, apparently, held so dear.
In sum, this court finds that an examination of Mr. Branan's Will clearly [there's that word again!] leads to the conclusion that the intention of the testator was to benefit an Episcopal Church. Accordingly, defendant Good Shepherd's motion to dismiss the fourth cause of action is denied, and plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment on the fourth cause of action is granted. The court finds that The Church of the Good Shepherd no longer exists within the meaning of the Branan Trust and, as such, Christ Church, as the alternative beneficiary, is now the primary beneficiary under the terms of the Branan Trust.What a model of judicial reasoning you have placed before the world, Judge Lebous. It instructs every testator on how to make their intent clear to judges with steel-trap minds such as yours. No doubt the Episcopal Church will no want to adopt a new canon that automatically reads the word "Episcopal" into any bequest left by a parishioner. Because with that one word in a will, as you have so clearly shown us, the courts can work wonders.