The historic Australian all-women’s university Sweet Briar College will be closing later this year. The Business Insider Australia reported on March 10 that the college will not be able to sell the property nor the 3,250 acre lands of the campus as per the last will and testament of the founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams.
The history of Sweet Briar College
In 1900, Williams stipulated in her will that, to honour her daughter Daisy, her estate must be used to establish a school for young women. The will states that, “no part of the said Sweet Briar Plantation and the two tracts of land adjoining… shall at any time be sold or alienated by the corporation”. It did however grant power to lease or hire certain areas so long as they were not needed for the school’s activities.
Due to this explicit clause, the college cannot legally sell the lands or property to compensate any debts or administrative costs of running the school.
Possible legal solutions include applying the doctrine of cy-près, which allows a judge to amend the will, but keep the changes as close as possible to the intentions and principles of Williams’ will. In this context, that might mean not selling the college but rather transferring ownership to another charitable organisation or not-for-profit education provider for women.
The benefits of a legally advised will
In 1901, Williams’ family challenged the will, yet her wishes prevailed and her bequest created the college. This historic example serves as a key lesson for estate planning and will makers: that having a well-crafted and legally advised will ensures the will maker’s demands and desires are respected, even hundreds of years later.
The purpose of a last will and testament is to protect one’s assets and to distribute all possessions in accordance with one’s own wishes. The best way to confirm this occurs is to solicit expert legal advice on estate planning.