Q: The church my parents helped build is closing. Early on they donated some stained-glass windows in memory of my grandparents. My grandparents’ names are incorporated into the design of the windows. With my parents and grandparents now deceased, I would treasure the windows. What happens to things like this when a church closes? Any chance I can claim the windows containing their names?

 

A: I do not have a definitive answer, but I can give you some direction. The first thing you want to do is check out your state law. It may speak to this issue. If not, begin by finding out who owns the church. To discover this you may need to track down the deed. Some churches are founded on the premise that they are for the primary benefit of an individual, family or group of families. If this is the case, given that your parents were founders, their names may be on the deed and you would have a clear claim to ownership of the windows.

A second possibility is that the founders turned the church over to its national governing body in return for spiritual, management and/or financial support. If that is the case, you could approach the governing body to make your case.

Most likely, the founders incorporated the church as a nonprofit entity. If they did, the current leadership is required upon its dissolution to distribute all assets to another nonprofit with a similar mission. Even if this is the case, though, you may still have some options available to you.

First, check out the terms of the donation. These may be found either in the church’s office or your family’s own records. What you are looking for is some statement that the donation is limited to the life of the congregation or the building, but will revert back to the family if the church ever closes. You may not find this language – donors often don’t think to qualify the terms of their gifts, especially in the unlikely event that undesired conditions should arise – but you may find something else in the terms that will allow you to claim the windows.

If that search fails to bring you the results you were hoping for, you might offer to either replace the decorative windows with plain glass, or buy them outright at marketvalue. These are relatively affordable ways for you to get what you want and make the church’s beneficiary whole. If buying the windows, be sure to offer market value, not the appraised value, which will undoubtedly be significantly higher, given that there is a robust market for stained-glass windows – even used ones. There are actually companies that buy these windows from churches and synagogues that are remodeling or closing and sell them to churches and synagogues that are starting out.  However, the desirability, and therefore the market value, of a window with someone’s name in the glass will generally be low.

I wish you much luck with your quest. I can understand how meaningful these windows are to you and your family.