Can Stipulations in a Will be Changed 100 Years Later? Maybe — Read About The Sweet Briar College Nightmare


Sweet Briar College in Amherst, VA (picture from News 3- Hampton Roads)


Q. I visited my niece, Natalie, last year at the picturesque Sweetbriar College, a liberal-arts women’s institution in rural Virginia. I am a history buff and I remember during a tour of the campus they mentioned how more than 100 years ago, the land was left by the plantation owner’s daughter to honor the memory of her own daughter. She stipulated in the Last Will and Testament that the land cannot be sold, and must be used as an educational institution for women. Unfortunately, the college is shutting its doors. Can what is said in a Last Will and Testament be modified under these circumstances? Thanks!

A. Sweet Briar College’s 3,250-acre campus, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was once the site of a tobacco and corn plantation. As you mentioned, in 1900, Indiana Fletcher Williams, whose father ran the plantation, bequeathed the land to form the college in memory of her daughter Daisy, who had died at 16 and never had a chance to attend college. She stipulated that that the institution would exclusively serve white women.

Now, the school serves all women, and once considered admitting men, as well. However, it took years of legal work just to change the Will to integrate the school in the late 1960s, a decade after Brown v. Board of Education. According to faculty, an additional change to Williams’ will to admit men would have been a legal nightmare.

Although Sweet Briar College has a ninety four million dollar endowment and has been soliciting and collecting donations right up until a few weeks ago, the college’s board voted this year that the college will be closing it’s doors. Despite the endowment, Sweet Briar, like similar private colleges around the country, had been facing mounting costs, and it was becoming difficult to attract enough students, especially ones who could afford the school’s full admission price of $47,095 a year.

Williams’ Will stipulates that the land is in a restricted charitable trust and that “[n]o 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, but it shall have the power to lease or hire out such portions thereof as may not be directly needed for the occupation of the school and its surrounding grounds.” Therefore, the college cannot sell the land to pay off debts without prior court approval, and it may be extremely difficult to gain this approval because of the stipulation in the Will.

Recently, Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), whose grandmother was an alumna of Sweet Briar, sent a letter to Attorney General Mark Herring regarding the legality of closing of the college. He inquired about the rights of the donors who made gifts to the institution and whether they are eligible for a refund, the obligation of the school to existing students, and what will happen to the land. He is still awaiting an answer to his first two questions, but there is some clarity on what can happen to the land.

A Possible Solution

The legal doctrine of Cy Pres ( is a doctrine that originated in the law of charitable trusts, but has been applied in the context of class action settlements in the United States. When the original objective of the settlor or the testator became impossible, impracticable, or illegal to perform, the cy-pres doctrine allows the court to amend the terms of the charitable trust as closely as possible to the original intention of the testator or trust settlor to prevent the trust from failing. So, in the case of Sweet Briar College, a court could rule that the land be sold and proceeds be given to another woman’s college, for example. We don’t know what the outcome will be for sure, but we at least we know there are options.

What Can We Learn from This?

We don’t know what the future will bring, but it is always important to plan for contingencies. A lesson we can take away from this is to make sure we have our estate planning documents in place, and they are updated regularly (at least every 1-3 years, depending on the document) and contain several options for different situations that could possibly occur. This is the only way to ensure that your estate plan truly reflects who you are, what you care about, and what you have. Should changes need to be made after the fact, it may be difficult, but at least you have the peace of mind that during your lifetime, you planned for every possible contingency.

Just as a car needs regular maintenance, your estate planning documents need to be updated or redone, especially if it has been more than 5 years since you have done so. The list below pinpoints certain examples of events that could have a significant impact on your estate:

  • You get married or divorced
  • Your spouse dies or becomes incapacitated
  • You become ill or disabled
  • You have a new child
  • Your child marries or divorces
  • Your child becomes ill or disabled
  • You have a new grandchild
  • One of your beneficiaries shows signs of being financially irresponsible
  • One of your beneficiaries develops a drug or alcohol problem
  • The value of your assets has significantly increased or decreased
  • You retire or change employment
  • You acquire property in a different state
  • You move to a different state
  • There have been changes in the law (which you’ll find out about by always reading our newsletters!) that may affect the language of your documents.

Even if no changes are necessary, you should annually sign updated Powers of Attorney, because some financial institutions won’t accept a Power of Attorney more than a year old. Similarly, the older an Advance Medical Directive is, the less likely it is that it will be honored by a doctor or hospital.

Don’t let too much time pass between reviews of your plan. The cost of a review is minimal; but the cost to your family if you neglect your plan could be disastrous.  If any of these changes have happened to you or if you haven’t updated your estate plan in the last few years, the time is now. Call us at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, at 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, at 301-519-8041 in Rockville, MD, or at 202-597-4847 in Washington, DC to update your estate plan! Ask about The Farr Law Firm’s Lifetime Protection Program, which ensures that your documents are properly reviewed and updated as needed, so that they will have the proper effect under the law.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.