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Nearby Areas Seek to Share Riches : Widow's Bequest Spawns Marin County Headache

February 13, 1986|TED ROHRLICH | Times Staff Writer

SAN RAFAEL — When Beryl H. Buck died a childless widow a decade ago, she left a generous bequest to the people of Marin County that has meant trouble ever since.

She thought she was leaving them stock worth $10 million. But she was way off. Now it appears it will take more than $10 million just to pay for the lawyers who are arguing whether Buck would have left all that stock for use in the second wealthiest county in the United States if she had known its true value.

The stocks, in a small, privately held oil company, turned out to be worth $300 million, making the Buck estate one of the largest anywhere and arousing the ire of people involved in worthwhile causes in other Bay Area counties who think it is ludicrous that all that money should be spent in affluent Marin.

Last week, more than a dozen lawyers hunkered down for the start of what, barring a surprise settlement, promises to be a six-month Superior Court trial over whether the San Francisco Foundation, custodian and dispenser of Buck's legacy, can, in effect, break her will and parcel her money out in other counties.

The foundation contends that it is highly unlikely that Buck would have left her money to Marin--a county of 220,000 residents that is often caricatured as home to a lot of old hippies and young professionals--if she had known the true extent of her holdings.

It contends that Buck, being a charitable person, probably would have wanted her wealth spread around the five-county Bay Area the foundation serves. The lawsuit seeks to obtain court permission to do just that.

Not surprisingly, Marin County officials have taken a dim view of sharing their inheritance.

They say that Buck meant what she said in her will: that the money "shall always be held and used for exclusively nonprofit charitable, religious or educational purposes in providing care for the needy in Marin County, California, and for other nonprofit charitable, religious or educational purposes in that county."

" . . . 37 simple, clearly stated words," said Marin County Counsel Douglas J. Maloney. "There is probably no one living, other than lawyers, who could not understand exactly what these words say and mean."

Maloney said the foundation is bound to abide by Buck's words unless it literally cannot.

He said there are plenty of good uses for the money in Marin, even though it is home to a lot of well-off people--a characteristic Buck knew well.

For instance, why not fund a major medical research center, Maloney asks.

Obstacles Envisioned

The foundation's answer, through a spokeswoman, is that no medical research center has been formally proposed. Also, there would be many obstacles. One would have to be started from the ground up. And the foundation generally does not fund capital projects.

Critics charge that the foundation has been unimaginative and inflexible--or worse, that some of its officials intended to sabotage the Marin-only provision of Buck's will from the beginning.

Their alleged motive? A way to save the foundation's identity as an organization that responds to the needs of a five-county area, not merely Marin.

Foundation officials dismiss such criticism as "paranoia." They say they have been flexible and have tried to spend the money wisely in Marin. When they found they could not, however, they decided that Buck would have wanted them to end a "cruel joke," as one foundation lawyer put it.

Changed Circumstances

At the trial, Judge Homer Thompson, imported from Santa Clara County by direction of the state Supreme Court, would have an easy time if the foundation could show that it had become illegal or impossible to go on spending the money in accordance with Buck's wishes.

The law has an ancient remedy for those situations called cy pres comme possible, from the Norman French, or cy pres for short. The cy pres doctrine provides for complying with a dead person's wishes as nearly as changed circumstances allow. For example, a bequest to pioneers in covered wagons might be rerouted to more modern travelers.

But the law is not clear when those in charge of administering a bequest decide that changed circumstances make it not impossible but unwise to comply with the wishes of the dead. That is what this case is about, with the foundation contending that it cannot spend the money effectively when it is restricted to spending it in Marin County, and the foundation's opponents charging it with a lack of bold vision.

Mutual Agreement Urged

Thompson has repeatedly indicated that he would prefer that the parties settle the case themselves. But it has been hard to clear the air with the Marin side at one point accusing the foundation of having a grave robber's bad faith.

The foundation has been under pressure from the moment it got the Buck trust. Overnight, it went from the nation's 50th largest to the 11th largest foundation. It became the largest of all foundations formed to serve a specific community--in this case, the five-county area.

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