Janet Reno speaking in front of the United States Capitol

In Reno v. Hurchalla (Fla. 3d DCA Aug. 21, 2019), Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal approved a trial court’s order approving the transfer of the historic Janet Reno homestead to Miami-Dade College.

Janet Reno was a prominent figure in Florida history. She was the first woman to serve as Dade County state attorney, and the first woman to serve as United States Attorney General. Reno was at the center of many notable legal matters during the Clinton presidency, including the seizure of Elian Gonzalez, the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the capture and conviction of the Unabomber and the Oklahoma City bombers, and the authorization of Kenneth Starr to investigate the Whitewater, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky matters.

Reno also owned a historic homestead in Kendall, Florida, which was built by hand by her mother in the 1940’s. At the time of Reno’s death in 2016, the homestead was owned by a trust created by Reno.

Under the terms of the trust, the trust was directed to gift the homestead to the University of Miami after Reno’s death. The gift was conditioned on the University preserving and maintaining the historic character of the homestead in perpetuity. However, when the University of Miami rejected the terms of the bequest, the trustee sought to effectuate Reno’s charitable intention by arranging for the homestead to be donated instead to Miami-Dade College. The College was willing to accept the terms of the bequest.

Although most of Reno’s surviving family members approved of the transfer, one of Reno’s nieces sued to block the bequest. The trial court held that the bequest was valid under the doctrine of cy pres. As codified in section 736.0413, Florida Statutes, the doctrine of cy pres allows that when a charitable purpose becomes unlawful, impracticable, impossible to achieve, or wasteful, a court may apply the doctrine of cy pres to modify or terminate the trust so that trust property may be distributed in a manner consistent with the settlor’s charitable purposes.

The Third DCA affirmed the trial court, holding that the use of the cy pres doctrine was valid because the terms of the trust became “impracticable” or “impossible to achieve” after the University of Miami declined to accept the bequest. Thus, the trustee properly preserved the charitable intent of the trust in identifying Miami-Dade College as an educational institution willing to preserve the unique character and historic importance of the Reno Homestead in perpetuity.

(Image of Janet Reno by flickr user Elvert Barnes, used pursuant to Creative Commons license).

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