Nation’s Oldest Charitable Trust Sparks Dispute

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February 24, 2012; Source: Boston Herald (AP)

 A controversy has erupted over a settlement allowing the nation’s oldest charitable trust to sell condominiums to existing renters in Ipswich, Mass. Created for the benefit of local schoolchildren, the trust was established in 1661 by William Payne, an early Massachusetts settler, who decreed in his will that the trust was for the “benifitt of the said scoole of Ipswitch, for euer…and therefore the sayd land not to bee sould nor wasted.”

The 35-acre property is currently home to 167 cottage renters. Renters sued over excessive rent in 2006, and to settle the lawsuit, the property’s trustees want to convert it into condominiums and sell them to the tenants. The trustees have agreed to sell “Jeffreys neck” for $32 million, which opponents claim is nearly $10 million below its current market value. These opponents, including 14 Ipswich residents seeking an injunction, say the settlement negates the celebrated intent of the dying Payne and ends their right to benefit from present value and future appreciation of the property.

Payne’s legacy ensured that Ipswich could comply with a 1647 colonial law requiring communities with 100 or more families to establish preparatory schools for entrance to Harvard College. The office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and the probate court that approved the settlement in December contend that current realities make literal enforcement of the will a perversion of Payne’s ultimate goal of serving the interests of his young beneficiaries—arguing that recapturing “a much needed revenue stream for the Ipswich schools” by allowing the sale is consistent with Payne’s intent and standing charity law.

Opponents aren’t buying it, saying the trustees have been poor custodians of the property and have made too-small payouts of $2.4 million over the last 25 years from a property currently worth at least $32 million. Frustrated plaintiff Douglas DeAngelis quipped that “there are a lot of different opinions in town as to whether the trustees are sort of willfully evil or just incompetent.” The Massachusetts Appeals Court will hear the plaintiffs’ request to void the settlement on March 2, 2012. Given that the subject of the dispute is a 351-year-old charitable trust, it will be interesting to see the court’s take on this, as it could have implications on just how literally wills are to be executed hundreds of years down the road. –Louis Altman