Category Archives: Fiduciary Discretion

May 28, 2013

Payment of College Expenses for Beneficiaries – To Pay or Not to Pay?

By Kelly Cooper

Fiduciary clients regularly ask me what expenses can be paid out of a trust.  Generally, this requires an examination of the terms of the trust and the applicable law.  However, even after considering the terms of the trust and applicable law, trustees are often stuck in this grey area trying to determine what expenses may be paid.  As a result, I am always on the lookout for cases that might provide guidance for trustees in exercising their discretion.  Recently, a case from New York caught my eye.  Matter of McDonald, 100 A.D. 1349 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2012).

In this case, the grandfather created a trust for his twin granddaughters and appointed his daughter (the twins’ mother) to serve as trustee.  As trustee, the mother refused to pay for the twins’ college expenses and to purchase a car for their use.  The twins filed suit and asked the court to remove their mother as trustee and to award attorney fees.

The trial court removed the mother as trustee, bypassed the named successor trustee and appointed an attorney (who was not named in the trust) to serve as successor trustee.  The trial court found that the mother had failed to observe the terms of the trusts and had abused her fiduciary responsibilities and awarded attorney fees to the twins.  The mother appealed and the trial court was unanimously reversed.

In reversing and finding in favor of the trustee, the appellate court cited to Section 50 of the Restatement of Trusts and identified the following factors:

The terms of the trust.  The relevant terms of the trust were stated as follows: “[t]he Trustee shall pay or apply to or for the use of each such living grandchild of mine so much of the income, accumulated income and principal of such share at any time and from time to time as the Trustee deems advisable in [the Trustee’s] sole discretion not subject to judicial review, to provide for such grandchild’s maintenance, support, education, health and welfare, even to the point of exhausting the same.”  The trust also provided for fractional distributions to the twins at ages 30 and 32 and termination of the trust at age 35.

Other resources.  The court noted that one of the twins’ college expenses were paid in full by public benefits and that the other twin had failed to even complete the necessary applications for public college benefits and tuition assistance.  Further, the twins both had New York 529 College Savings accounts and the balances in those accounts were sufficient to pay college expenses.

Friction.  The appellate court noted that there was friction between the mother and her teenaged daughters, but found that mere friction or disharmony between a trustee and a beneficiary is not sufficient grounds to remove a trustee.   The appellate court quoted another New York case, stating, “If it were, an obstreperous malintentioned beneficiary could cause the removal of a competent trustee through no fault on the latter’s part.”

April 1, 2013

No Contest Clauses in Trusts and Powers of Appointment: Is Colorado’s Silence an Oversight or an Opportunity?

by Kelly Cooper

With the increasing diversity in the make up of today’s families, many estate plans now treat family members differently or disinherit certain family members completely.  When there is unequal treatment or a disinheritance, estate planners often include no contest clauses in their documents to try to avoid costly disputes and litigation after a client’s death.  Under Colorado law, a no contest clause is only enforceable against a beneficiary if the beneficiary lacked probable cause to bring a contest.  An in-depth discussion of these clauses and the probable cause exception to enforceability was posted to our blog last week, to read it, click here.  We expect the use of these clauses to increase and for clients to request these clauses as they become more familiar with them through media reports about the use of them in celebrities’ estate plans (e.g. Michael Jackson, Brooke Astor).

The topic for today is whether a contest clause in a trust agreement is subject to the same probable cause exception as a contest clause contained in a decedent’s will.  Since a revocable trust is considered a will substitute, some will argue that there is no compelling reason to treat a contest clause in a revocable trust any differently than one in a will.  While Colorado’s probate statutes are clear that a probable cause exception exists for contest clauses in wills, Colorado’s trust statutes do not contain any similar provision.  Is this silence an oversight or an opportunity for planners?  

Colorado’s silence on the question of contest clauses in trusts made me wonder how many states had statutes addressing contest clauses in trusts (enforceability and/or exceptions to enforceability).  The answer is thirteen (and is found in a great 2012 State Laws Survey cited at the end of this post) – Alaska, California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas.  According to the survey, another nine states have case law addressing the question of the enforceability of contest clauses in trusts, but Colorado and twenty-five states have no statute or case law on this issue.  The Uniform Trust Code is also silent on whether contest clauses in trusts are enforceable.  In light of the fact that numerous states have already addressed the issue of contest clauses in trusts, it can be argued that Colorado’s silence is purposeful.

Colorado law is also silent on the issue of a decedent can place a condition on the exercise a power of appointment.  For example, a decedent’s will may state that he exercises a power of appointment to give assets equally to A and B if no contest is filed, but that he exercises the power to give all of the assets to A if B files a contest.  While this is a conditional exercise of the power of appointment, it reads very similarly to a contest clause.  Unlike revocable trusts, which are often will substitutes, a power of appointment is not a will substitute and the argument that a power of appointment should be treated like a will may well fall short.  In addition, powers of appointment are generally exercisable in regard to trust assets, not probate assets.  Here, Colorado’s law silence on the enforceability of contest clauses in trusts may provide a real opportunity to avoid the probable cause exception, but also causes uncertainty for fiduciaries and administrators of trust assets subject to powers of appointment.

In light of the uncertainty in this area, planners may want to consider drafting trusts instead of wills for those clients who wish to include contest clauses.  When possible, planners may also want to include powers of appointment to allow for greater flexibility and to assist their clients in exercising powers of appointment to implement any plan of unequal treatment among beneficiaries.

For more information about the differing state laws in regard to contest clauses, see a great survey “State Laws: No-Contest Clauses,” T. Jack Challis and Howard M. Zaritsky, March 24, 2012.