February 17, 2014

Letters of Wishes: Helpful or Hurtful?

by Kelly Cooper and Desta Asfaw

Most of the trusts we see instruct the trustee to consider making distributions for “health, education, maintenance and support.”  While the typical HEMS standard provides certainty in regard to taxes, it does not provide the trustee with any insight into what types of distributions the settlor wanted the beneficiaries to receive from the trust.  In addition, many trusts give the trustee broad discretion in regard to distributions (through the use of the words, “sole” or “absolute”), which puts even more pressure on the trustee to figure out if the settlor would have agreed to make distributions.  Typically, a trustee has little to no guidance from the settlor about his or her desires for the beneficiaries or his or her purposes in creating the trust (other than tax deferral or avoidance).

One solution to this problem is for the settlor of the trust to send to the trustee a non-binding letter of wishes.  Letters of wishes include personal information about the settlor and the beneficiaries, their relationships, the beneficiaries’ abilities and limitations and the settlor’s specific concerns or desires regarding each beneficiary.  Letters of wishes give the trustee more insight into the state of mind of the settlor when exercising discretion, which is helpful when exercising discretion in regard to distributions.

While letters of wishes are generally recognized in the estate planning community, there is very little law regarding the effect of a letter of wishes on a trustee’s discretion, whether reliance on a letter of wishes provides any liability protection to a trustee or if a letter of wishes must be disclosed to the beneficiaries.  If a settlor provides opinions and concerns about the beneficiaries in a letter of wishes that may be hurtful to the beneficiaries, the trustee will then be faced with the difficult decision – do you provide a copy of the letter of wishes to the beneficiaries?  If a claim for breach of the trustee’s fiduciary duty should arise, it may be that the trustee is left with no choice but to make the letter available to the beneficiaries.  In Colorado, there is no case law regarding letters of wishes so it is unknown if the letters of wishes must be disclosed to beneficiaries under C.R.S. § 15-16-303 or whether a trustee can rely on a letter of wishes when making a distribution decision.

Even with the uncertainty relating to the disclosure and use of letters of wishes, any peek into the settlor’s mind and his or her intent regarding distributions will be helpful to a trustee.  If a letter of wishes is admitted into evidence during a dispute, the letter could also prove to be compelling evidence for a judge reviewing a trustee’s exercise of discretion.