Presbytery Found To Not Be Successor Charity Under Certain Circumstances

In re Estate of Stumm, No. A-0655-18T2, 2019 WL 4620342 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Sept. 24, 2019).

This appeal involved the interpretation of a will and the application of N.J.S.A. § 16:11-23 to resolve whether a bequest should pass to The Presbytery of the Palisades and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. Estate (collectively “the Presbytery”), or to a local church.

The decedent, Ruth Stumm, was long-time a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Wood-Ridge (“Church of Wood-Ridge”). Her 2010 last will provided that a portion of the residue would pass “unto the [Wood-Ridge church] or its successor to establish an endowment in the name of Gustave Herre.”

Stumm died in 2016. In the interim, the Church of Wood-Ridge dissolved in 2014.

The executor of Stumm’s estate sought advice and direction from the court as to the interpretation of the bequest. In response, the Presbytery, the Church of Moonachie, and the United Presbyterian Church of Lyndhurst claimed they were the successors of the Church of Wood-Ridge’s assets and therefore entitled to the residuary bequest to the Church of Wood-Ridge.

The Presbytery contended that under N.J.S.A. § 16:11-23, it was entitled to the Church of Wood-Ridge’s share of Stumm’s estate because it was the successor to the dissolved church’s assets. The Presbytery also argued that Stumm knew it was the successor to the local church and she could have changed her will after the local church was dissolved if that was her intent.

The trial court conducted a three-day bench trial and concluded that the Church of Moonachie was entitled to the bequest, based on Stumm’s probable intent. In addition, the judge set forth ten reasons why N.J.S.A. § 16:11-23 did not confer the status of successor on the Presbytery.

On appeal, the Presbytery argued that the trial judge improperly conducted a trial to determine Stumm’s “probable intent” and evaluated extrinsic evidence rather than reading the plain and unambiguous language of her will. In addition, it argued that the trial court’s decision was inconsistent with N.J.S.A. § 16:11-23.

The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and affirmed the trial court. Citing In re Trust of Nelson, 454 N.J. Super. 151, 159 (App. Div. 2018), and related precedent, the appellate court explained that a trial judge is permitted to look beyond the plain language of the will to ascertain the decedent’s intended meaning, and the trial court had properly concluded that Stumm’s probable intent was that a local church, such as Church of Moonachie, was the proper recipient of the bequest.

The Appellate Division likewise rejected the Presbytery’s contention that N.J.S.A. § 16:11-23 directs that, when a local Presbyterian Church dissolves, a bequest to the local church vests in the Presbytery. Instead, N.J.S.A. § 16:11-23 provides that all property held by a local church at the time of its dissolution shall go to the Presbytery; the statute is silent as to a devise to the local church after dissolution.