The Uniting Church’s agencies, schools, residential and theological colleges, mission organisations and congregations are all beneficiaries of generous benefactors investing in the future life of the Church.
Nearly two years ago, Sandra Bethell was appointed by the synod to undertake a review of the trusts established by gifts and bequests, many of which were inherited by the Church following union.
Her mandate was to expand on existing procedures for the administration of the funds, and to develop a procedure manual.
Ms Bethell’s work as synod trusts lawyer has taken her on a forensic journey into the past as she has sought to bring legal clarity to historic trusts and to ensure a rigorous and strongly governed trusteeship function into the future.
In this, the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, Ms Bethell said it has been intriguing to read of funds established by Church members in memory of loved ones, and in support of the children of soldiers.
For example, trying to track down the origins of a Peace Thanksgiving Fund, Ms Bethell uncovered a 1924 report in The Argus newspaper, archived in the National Library of Australia.
The newspaper reported on the progress of the appeal launched five years earlier, in 1919, by the Presbyterian Church. The Argus stated: “Schemes in connection with the fund that had been helped already from the interest derived from the invested funds included kindergartens, scholarships for children of fallen or incapacitated soldiers, and the welfare of youth scholarships.”
This captures the challenge for trustees who have the task of the distribution of trust funds. Over time the trust purpose specified by a donor many years or decades earlier can become impracticable to fulfil. In such a case the original purpose can be changed via an application for the sanction to a ‘cy près’ scheme.
The new purpose needs to be ‘as close as possible’ (in French, ‘cy près’) to the original purpose of the trust.
“It has been a fascinating journey into the past life of the Church and those churches which united to form it,” Ms Bethell said.
“Trusts, whether established during a person’s life, and known as ‘inter vivos’ gifts, or through bequests in a Will, called ‘testamentary trusts’, from early to mid-last century, capture a bygone age when the focus was on evangelism both here and overseas.
“They are tiny windows into the lives of Christian men and women who had a future vision and wanted to ensure the Church that they loved was there fulfilling its mission for future generations.”
As well as advising on issues regarding historical trusts, Ms Bethell is developing a new governance and compliance framework for all trusts of which the Property Trusts established by the Uniting Church in Australia Acts are the trustees.
Part of Ms Bethell’s role is to establish a Church Trust Record for every trust.
The record will include relevant details of the donor (as well as their association with the Uniting Church or one of the three ‘uniting’ churches), the trust terms and any current administrative decisions made by the trustee about the trust.
Copies of original documents from Church agencies and congregations are being scanned and will be preserved for posterity.
“The documents demonstrate the rich history of donors giving both large and small amounts to establish perpetual trusts for church purposes,” Ms Bethell said.
“Looking back on the history of bequests has highlighted the benefit such a gift can leave to the Church. If a person creates a perpetual trust for a purpose of the Church, it is concessionally taxed, which means that even a relatively small amount of initial capital increases quickly.
“Also, a donor can specify the name of the trust they intend to establish – either their own name, or the name of someone they want to memorialise. As the capital of a trust increases, the income for the chosen purpose increases, creating a significant and lasting benefit.”
For more information on Church bequests and trusts go to: www.victas.uca.org.au/Trusts-and-Bequests