Estate of Wilson
59 N.Y.2d 461, 452 N.E.2d 1228, 465 N.Y.S.2d 900 (1983)

  • Wilson created a charitable trust in his will to pay for the education of boys that graduated from a Canastota High School.
    • The operative word is ‘boys’, so no money went to female graduates.
  • 11 years later someone complained to the US Department of Education that the trust violated the Title IX section of the 20 U.S.C. § 1681, which prevented gender discrimination in schools.
    • Although the trust was private, it required the cooperation of the superintendent to provide names of those worthy of scholarships, and so if became a Title IX issue.
  • Canastota stopped providing the names of potential scholarship graduates to the trustee. The trustee initiated a proceeding to determine the validity of the trust.
  • The Trial Court found that the trust violated no Federal Statute or regulation prohibiting gender discrimination. Somebody appealed.
  • The Appellate Court modified the Trial Court’s ruling, but basically affirmed. Somebody appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the superintendent should be out of the loop, so they modified the provision of the trust so that male students could apply to the trustee directly.
  • Around the same time, a second case with similar facts arose:
    • In Estate of Johnson, Johnson created a trust to be applied to creating scholarships for male students. The trustees were to be the Board of Education and the Principal of the high school. The school balked at the provision and refused to participate.
    • The Trial Court in Johnson decided to replace the Board of Education and Principal with a private trustee.
    • The Appellate Court in Johnson felt that this amounted to the State sanctioning gender discrimination and overturned the Trial Court, deciding instead to go with the original language of the trust, but replace the word ‘men’ with ‘students’ to make it a gender-neutral scholarship administered by the school.
  • The New York Supreme Court consolidated the two cases.
  • The New York Supreme Court affirmed Wilson and reversed Johnson.
    • Basically, in Wilson the New York Supreme Court said that, as long as the school wasn’t directly involved, the trust and scholarship was a completely private endeavor and wasn’t covered by Title IX or the 14th Amendment.
      • “The 14th Amendment does not require that the State exercise the full extent of its power to eradicate private discrimination. It is only when the State itself discriminates, compels another to discriminate, or allows another to assume its function and discriminate that such discrimination will implicate the amendment.”
    • The New York Supreme Court said that a trust couldn’t fail because of the lack of a trustee. In Johnson, the problem was that the school refused to administer the trust as written. The proper action was to replace the trustee (the school) with someone willing to do the job (a private trustee), not to modify the terms of the trust.
      • Modifying the terms of a trust because it is impossible to meet them as written is known as cy pres, and should only be done as a last resort.
        • Cy pres is only available for charitable trusts. You could never use cy pres to fix a personal trust.
      • In Johnson (as well as Wilson), the courts could have met the intent of the settlor by appointing a different trustee. This was a better solution than changing the terms of the trust to something the settlors didn’t intend.
  • The Court had a good public policy reason for wanting to find these trusts were valid. There were many more trusts that benefited girls than benefited boys, and the decision in this case could have invalidated all of those trusts.