Leaving Money to a Political Party

Do campaign limits apply beyond the grave?

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Raymond Burrington gave the Libertarian Party only one $25 donation while he was alive—but after his death in 2007, the party’s national committee was thrilled to learn that he had left them almost $218,000.

That delight eventually turned to dismay, because the Libertarian National Committee (LNC) still hasn’t gotten most of the money. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that the money must be doled out at a rate of about $30,000 per year—the current limit on annual donations by living persons to committees of national political parties. (This limit, which is indexed for inflation, is imposed by federal law, 2 U.S.C. § 441a(a)(1).) The rest of the money is still sitting in an escrow account.

Restrictions on Political Donations

Federal law restricts donations to different entities. For example, currently an individual can give a maximum of $2,500 to a candidate, or candidate committee, per election. For donations to national party committees—such as the LNC—the limit is $30,800 per calendar year. There is an overall biennial limit of $117,000. (For more details, see the FEC’s list of contribution limits.)

The goal of these restrictions is to reduce corruption, and to limit the disproportionate impact of rich individuals on legislative policy. By making candidates and parties rely on many smaller donors instead of fewer rich ones, the political process will be made fairer and more representative.

Should Bequests Be Treated Like Gifts From Living Donors?

The Libertarian National Committee, unable to claim all of the money left it by Raymond Burrington, is suing the FEC to get immediate access to the rest of the funds. (To the LNC, it’s a significant amount of money—the LNC notes in its court papers that the sum would have nearly covered the committee’s entire operating deficit in 2008.)

The party argues that leaving money to a political party is a form of political expression, and that bequests should not be subject to the limits that apply to living donors. After all, the party says, the point of restricting donations from living persons is to reduce the distorting effect on governance that huge donations can cause. Big donors expect favorable treatment and access to elected officials, and officeholders grant favors and access in hopes of big donations.

None of those risks apply when someone leaves a bequest to a political party, according to documents the LNC has filed in federal court. Because people don’t know when they will die, they don’t know when their gift will actually be made and may not know (depending on the terms of the bequest) which candidates might benefit from their generosity. Mr. Burrington made his will in 2000, seven years before his death; the LNC didn’t know about his bequest until after he had died. And a party doesn’t need to worry about offending a deceased donor. (“The Libertarian Party does not associate with the dead and does not maintain deceased members,” it somberly asserts in a federal court filing.)

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The FEC, however, isn’t buying all of the LNC’s arguments. It points out in its own court papers that if someone bequeathed the party enough money to qualify as a “major donor,” a family member of the deceased contributor could take that person’s place in one of the party’s major donor groups, which could confer preferential access to federal candidates. Similarly, a political party could solicit “planned gifts”—that is, it could encourage donors to remember the party generously in their wills or trusts—in return for preferential treatment.

Leaving Money to a Political Party or Committee

Many people, like Raymond Burrington, make much larger gifts to political parties at their death than when they are alive. If you plan on using your will or trust to leave your favorite political party a gift that exceeds current annual campaign donation limits, make sure you know how—and when—it can be used.

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