Category Archives: Fiduciary Duties

December 19, 2016

Claims Challenging Estate Plans

by Rebecca Klock Schroer

We are seeing an increase in the number of lawsuits in which people are challenging or trying to circumvent estate plans.  The claims traditionally include lack of testamentary capacity and those involving improper actions by family members, agents under powers of attorney or conservators.

Testamentary Capacity

A challenge to an estate plan often involves a claim that the testator was not of sound mind. Under Colorado law, a sound mind includes the presence of the Cunningham factors and absence of an insane delusion that materially affected the testamentary instrument.  The Cunningham factors are as follows: the testator must (1) understand the nature of the act, (2) know the extent of his property, (3) understand the proposed testamentary disposition, (4) know the natural objects of his bounty, and (5) that the testamentary instrument represented his wishes.  Cunningham v. Stender, 255 P.2d 977 (Colo. 1953).

In addition to these factors, the testator cannot be suffering from an insane delusion.  An insane delusion exists if a person has a persistent belief, resulting from illness or disorder, in the existence or non-existence of something contrary to all evidence, which materially affects the disposition in the testamentary instrument.  Breeden v. Stone, 992 P.2d 1167 (Colo. 2000).  For example, failure to include a child in the will because the testator believes that child has been abducted by aliens and will never return to earth. Read more >>

November 7, 2016

Nuances of Estate Tax Lien Priority

by Margot S. Edwards

In many cases, estate tax obligations have priority over the creditors of an estate, but this general rule has exceptions. It is key for a fiduciary to understand when a creditor may have priority over estate taxes, in order to ensure the fiduciary is properly carrying out its duties to the estate’s creditors.

The primary exception to the general rule is that secured creditors often have priority over an estate tax lien (I.R.C. § 6323). One common example of a secured creditor with priority over estate tax obligations is a lender who provided a purchase money mortgage, which is properly secured by real estate. A secured creditor may have priority over an estate tax obligation if the debt is secured by a security interest that was perfected under applicable state law prior to the decedent’s death.  Read more >>

June 20, 2016

Colorado Uniform Trust Decanting Act

by Rebecca Klock Schroer

The Colorado Uniform Trust Decanting Act (“Act”) was recently signed by the Governor and it will become effective August 10, 2016.   The legislation is large, complex and important for both estate planners and probate litigators.

Decanting allows a trustee to distribute the assets of one trust (“first trust”) to a second trust (“second trust”) under specific circumstances. The Act applies to an irrevocable trust, other than an irrevocable trust held solely for a charitable purpose. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-16-903. Decanting is used, among other things, to correct drafting errors, change the situs/governing law of a trust, alter trustee provisions (e.g. trustee succession, create a directed trustee arrangement, reallocate trustee powers), alter powers of appointment, add special needs provisions, and comply with changing tax laws.

Read more >>

June 6, 2016

Recent IRS Statistics

by Kelly Dickson Cooper

For our litigation clients, a fiduciary’s failure to consider the tax impact of their actions can be the genus for litigation and anticipated tax savings can be the engine that drives a settlement.  For our fiduciary clients, it is important for them to ensure that transfer taxes are minimized for the benefit of their beneficiaries.  For our planning clients, tax planning is a key component in determining the best structure for their wealth transfer planning.  Given the importance of transfer taxes in our practice, we wanted to highlight a few items from the IRS 2015 Data Book relating to estate and gift tax returns:

Number of Tax Returns filed during 2015

  • 36,343 estate tax returns (545 from Colorado)
  • 237,706 gift tax returns (4,492 from Colorado)

Amounts Collected

  • Estate tax returns  – $17,066,589 collected
  • Gift tax returns – $2,052,428 collected

Percentage of 2014 Tax Returns Audited in 2015

  • 7.8% of all estate tax returns
    • Gross estate less than $5 million – 2.1% audit rate
    • Gross estate greater than $5 million but less than $10 million – 16.2% audit rate
    • Gross estate greater than $10 million – 31.6% audit rate
  • 0.9% of all gift tax returns

Results of Audits

  • 22% of estate tax returns examined had no change
  • 34% of gift tax returns examined had no change
  • 70 estate tax returns and 135 gift tax returns had unagreed recommended additional tax
  • 543 estate tax returns and 43 gift tax returns resulted in tax refunds

April 27, 2016

Personal and Family Lending: New Federal and Colorado Regulations

by Desta K. Asfaw

There have been a number of recent changes to the mortgage lending laws.   Under current law in Colorado, certain private loans secured by residential real estate may be subject to compliance with strict licensing and other requirements.   Failure to comply could potentially result in misdemeanor charges and/or fines.

These new obstacles stem from provisions of the Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act of 2008 (“SAFE Act”), the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”), and the Colorado Mortgage Loan Originator Licensing and Mortgage Company Registration Act (“CMLO Act”).

Read more >>

March 14, 2016

Your Fiduciary Duty to Invest “Prudently”

by Elizabeth Meck

As promised, this is the second post in a series on the fiduciary duties of a trustee. In the first blog in this series, we discussed the fundamental duty of loyalty. In this post, we will discuss the trustee’s duty to exercise care and skill in the management and investment of trust assets.

Acting in the best interests of the trust and the trust beneficiaries, a trustee has the duty to protect and preserve trust assets and, generally, to make the assets productive. In making investment decisions and managing trust assets, the trustee must further abide by the “prudent investor rule,” which requires a trustee to exercise reasonable care, skill and caution. See Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 15-1.1-101, et. seq. (the “Uniform Prudent Investor Act”) and §§ 15-1-1101, et. seq. (the “Uniform Management of Institutional Funds Act”).

Pursuant to the prudent investor rule, a trustee should consider broad investment factors, such as: current economic conditions, effects of inflation or deflation, tax consequences, the nature of closely-held business interests, alternative investments, expected returns on income and capital, other resources of the trust or trust beneficiaries, the need for liquidity versus preservation of capital, the production of income, the special value or relationship of a particular asset to the trust or the beneficiaries, diversification of investments, and more. See, Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 227. Additionally, while it is important to note that Colorado courts have not officially adopted the Restatement (Third) of Trusts, one could refer to § 90, which lists five helpful “principles” of the prudent investor rule. Generally, any single investment will not violate the prudent investor rule and the trustee should manage the trust portfolio as a whole taking into account these considerations.

The trustee must also abide by any specific instructions in the trust instrument. He should exercise caution in doing so, however, because there are many instances in which blindly following the trust terms may result in unreasonable investment decisions. For example, if the settlor instructs the trustee that he is not required to diversify investments in the case of a closely-held family entity, the trustee would still want to closely monitor the performance of such investments to ensure that the closely-held entity value is not plummeting to the point that the beneficiaries’ interests may be significantly impaired.

It is important to note that poor performance of investments alone will not subject the trustee to a claim for breaching his duties to prudently invest. Beneficiaries frequently and incorrectly think they will have a claim against a trustee simply for poor performance. The trustee, however, will be able to overcome such a claim so long as the underlying investment decisions were reasonably made.

Colorado law does authorize a trustee to hire professionals and to delegate certain aspects of investing and portfolio management. However, the law does not allow for wholesale delegation and the trustee should exercise great caution in hiring professional advisors or fund managers. See Colo. Rev. Stat. §15-1.1-109 (trustee has the authority to delegate investment and management functions, but must engage and monitor such professionals carefully); see also GEORGE G. BOGERT, ET AL, The Law of Trusts and Trustees § 557; Colo. Rev. Stat. §15-1-804(2)(x)(I)(trustee has the power to “employ attorneys or other advisors to assist the fiduciary in the performance of his or her duties” (emphasis added)).

Finally, a trustee should keep in mind that uninformed beneficiaries are uneasy beneficiaries. Not only is it a good idea for a trustee to provide information to the beneficiaries as to investment and asset management decisions, Colorado law requires the trustee to keep beneficiaries “reasonably informed” and to provide accountings to beneficiaries upon reasonable request. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-16-303. Keeping beneficiaries informed as to investment decisions not only provides peace of mind to the beneficiaries, but may provide the trustee with an argument particularly in the situation where the beneficiaries have consented to risky or unusual investment strategies. See Beyer v. First Nat. Bank of Colorado Springs, 843 P.2d 53 (Colo. App. 1992).

In sum, the trustee has a duty to continually observe and evaluate investments to ensure that they are consistent with the purpose of the trust, current economic conditions, and the needs of the current and remainder beneficiaries. So long as the trustee exercises reasonable care in investment decisions, exercises care in selecting and hiring investment advisors and professionals, follows the general principles of prudent investing, and keeps the beneficiaries informed, the likelihood of a claim against the trustee for improper investment decisions may be reduced.

December 14, 2015

Now There Are Tax Transcripts In Lieu of Estate Tax Closing Letters

by Carol Warnick

The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) announced earlier this year that it would no longer routinely send out an estate tax closing letter and that such letters would have to be specifically requested by the taxpayer. The change in procedure was effective for all estate tax returns filed after June 1, 2015.

Previously, an estate tax closing letter was evidence to show that the IRS had either accepted an estate tax return as filed, or if there has been an audit, that final changes had been made and accepted. Receipt of an estate tax closing letter has never meant that the statute of limitations on the return has run, but it has given comfort to the estate administrator that he or she could make distributions and/or pay creditors knowing that the chances of further IRS review of the return was not likely. Many personal representatives and trustees have made it a practice to wait for such a closing letter before funding sub-trusts or making any significant distributions.

On December 4, 2015, the IRS announced that “account transcripts, which reflect transactions including the acceptance of Form 706 and the completion of an examination, may be an acceptable substitute for the estate tax closing letter.”   Such account transcripts will be made available online to registered tax professionals using the Transcript Delivery System (TDS). Transcripts will also be made available to authorized representatives making requests using Form 4506-T. They still must be requested, but may be easier to obtain than an estate tax closing letter.

For further instructions, here is the link to the information on the IRS website: http://tinyurl.com/plhb6f6.

August 17, 2015

Colorado Court of Appeals Limits Settlor’s Ability to Exercise Retained Power of Substitution

by Helen Rogers

A recent Colorado Court of Appeals decision suggests that a settlor who retains the power to substitute assets into an intentionally defective irrevocable trust (an “IDIT”) may be prevented from substituting a promissory note into the IDIT, even if the settlor retained the right to substitute assets into the IDIT without the supervision of a fiduciary. The decision, along with the District Court order that it upholds, suggests that a settlor’s retained right to substitute assets into an IDIT is more limited than the settlor might imagine or hope.

In In the Matter of the Trust Created by Mark Vance Condiotti, 14CA0969 (unpublished decision), a settlor established an IDIT (the “Condiotti Trust”) for the benefit of his son. The trust agreement gave the settlor the right to reacquire the trust corpus by substituting other property of an “equivalent value.” The agreement stated that the settlor could exercise this power in a nonfiduciary capacity, without the approval or consent of any person acting in a fiduciary capacity. This “substitution power,” also referred to as a “swap power,” is often included in IDITs because it causes the IDIT to be treated as a grantor trust for income tax purposes but does not cause the IDIT’s assets to be included in the settlor’s estate for estate tax purposes. When an IDIT is treated as a grantor trust, the settlor may pay the income taxes for the IDIT without incurring any gift taxes (thus increasing the value of the trust gift tax-free).

After funding the trust with a diversified portfolio of securities, the settlor notified the trustees of the Condiotti Trust that he intended to reacquire the entire corpus of the Trust in exchange for a promissory note. The promissory note had a face value equal to the value of the Condiotti Trust’s securities, and paid interest at the Applicable Federal Rate.

The trustees refused to accept the promissory note in exchange for the securities. The settlor threatened to sue. The trustees petitioned the District Court of La Plata County, where the trust was then administered, for instructions.

In their petition for instructions, the trustees argued that they could reject the promissory note because the trust agreement only permitted the settlor to substitute assets of equivalent value, and the promissory note did not have a value equivalent to the Trust’s securities because (1) it was unsecured, (2) it bore interest at a low rate, and (3) there was little market for promissory notes. They also argued that the settlor’s proposed substitution was actually a request for a loan from the Condiotti Trust to the settlor, which was not permitted by the trust agreement.

The settlor argued that the promissory note did have a value equal to that of the Condiotti Trust’s assets because it had a face value equal to the value of the trust’s securities, and, under Section 7872 of the Internal Revenue Code, a promissory note is valued at its face value as long as it pays interest at the Applicable Federal Rate and the Settlor is solvent.

The District Court issued an order stating that the trustees were entitled to reject the proposed substitution. First, it stated that, in the context of an asset substitution involving an IDIT, assets will be considered to be of equivalent value if they have (1) an equivalent value under the Internal Revenue Code, AND (2) an equivalent fair market value. As the settlor’s promissory note bore interest at a low rate and there is little market for reselling promissory notes, the District Court found that the note did not have an equivalent fair market value to the Condiotti Trust’s more liquid diversified securities.

Second, the District Court held that the trustees could reject the proposed substitution because it was in fact a request for a loan from the Trust to the settlor, which was not permitted under the trust agreement.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s finding that the proposed substitution was a request for a loan from the Trust to the settlor. The Court provided four questions for courts to consider when determining whether a particular transaction is a loan: (1) do the parties stand in the relationship of debtor and creditor; (2) was a promissory note executed; (3) was interested agreed to or paid; and (4) did the parties agree that the recipient would repay the monies received?

The Court of Appeals did not address the District Court’s finding that the note was not of equivalent value to the trust’s assets.

What does this case mean for settlors who wish to exercise their retained powers of substitution?

First, a settlor should ensure that his or her proposed substitution transaction does not appear to be a loan, especially where the trust agreement does not allow the trust to make loans to the settlor. In fact, the Court of Appeals’ four questions suggest that a settlor should never attempt to substitute a promissory note for trust assets. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a substitution of a promissory note into a trust does not result in (1) a debtor-creditor relationship between the settlor and the trust, (2) an executed promissory note, (3) agreed-to interest, and (4) an agreement that the settlor would repay the trust.

Second, any settlor who exercises his or her power of substitution should ensure that the asset being substituted into the trust is truly of equivalent value to the assets being taken out of the trust. The District Court’s Order indicates that a trustee may scrutinize both the tax value and the fair market value of any asset that a settlor proposes to substitute into a trust, and that the trustee may reject a substitution if it determines that either of those values is too low. Additionally, the settlor risks rejection if the property being substituted into the trust could not be resold to the same extent as the property being removed from the trust.

July 21, 2015

Opposition to the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

by Morgan Wiener

Despite the final version being passed by the Uniform Law Commission two years ago, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (“UFADAA”) has not yet enjoyed widespread passage by state legislatures.  According to the Uniform Law Commission, to date, UFADAA has only been enacted in one state – Delaware.  An additional 26 states introduced legislation to enact a version of UFADAA during the first half of this year, but none of those measures have been passed.  As tempting as it may be to lay the blame on the sluggish pace of the legislative process, it’s important to note that UFADAA also faces substantive resistance.

Although much of the commentary surrounding UFADAA, both on this blog and in the estate planning community at large, has been positive, industry and consumer groups have both opposed the act on privacy grounds.  For example, letters published by both Yahoo! and a coalition of civil liberties groups have raised concerns that the relatively unfettered access to digital assets allowed by UFADAA goes too far and does not do enough to protect the privacy interests of not only a decedent, but also those who communicated with a decedent during his lifetime.  These letters can be found here and here.  The Internet Coalition, a group that represents the interests of major e-commerce and social media companies, the State Privacy and Security Coalition, Inc., and NetChoice, a group whose goal is to promote e-commerce, have all also opposed UFADAA’s enactment in various states.

NetChoice has gone further than simply opposing UFADAA and has proposed its own alternative to UFADAA – the Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act (“PEAC”).  Rather than providing automatic access to a decedent’s digital assets, PEAC contemplates that the probate court will grant access only upon making certain findings and contains a number of provisions that appear designed to protect the holders of digital assets.  You can read the full text of PEAC here.

It will be interesting to see whether UFADAA gains more traction during the next legislative session or whether the opposition holds firm.  Watch this space for updates.

May 12, 2015

What Does It Mean To Be A Trustee?

by Carol Warnick

We are constantly surprised to realize that the normal, average trustee who is not a professional fiduciary doesn’t really understand what is required of him or her and often makes serious mistakes.  You would expect that someone taking over the role of being a trustee would inquire or do some type of research as to what is expected, but unfortunately many new trustees don’t seem to take the responsibility seriously enough, often with disastrous consequences.

The trustee stands in a special relationship with the grantor of the trust as well as to the beneficiaries.  This relationship is unique and the trustee should keep that in the forefront of his or her mind.  By appointing someone as trustee, the grantor is depending upon the trustee to both honor the provisions of the trust to the best of his or her ability, but also to respond to the needs  of the beneficiaries and to maintain their confidence and trust.  The trustee must be careful not to do anything which would benefit the trustee to the detriment of the beneficiaries or to ignore the duties and obligations of a trustee.  Thus the word “trust” inside the term “trustee” should not be taken lightly. 

The obligations of a trustee are defined not only by the trust agreement, but also by state law, some of which is statutory and some of which is common law.  State laws may differ from state to state, but some basic premises hold true wherever  a trust is being administered.  In general, these duties of a trustee are important and can result in litigation, removal, and potentially surcharge if the trustee ignores them.  

Some of the general duties of a trustee are set forth below, as taken from “What It Means to Be A Trustee:  A Guide for Clients,” published in the ACTEC Journal, Volume 31, No. 1, Summer 2005. 

  • Duty to Administer Trust by Its Terms.  The trust, including amendments,  provides a roadmap for the trustee and unless its terms are ambiguous, the trustee must follow its terms.  As mentioned above, state law will govern many areas where the trust is silent, so the trustee must be versed in the state law where the jurisdiction is administered. 
  • Duty of Skill and Care.  Skill, prudence and diligence — this is a high standard of performance — higher that one would be expected to follow if administering one’s own assets. 
  • Duty to Give Notice.  The trustee must be familiar with the language of the trust as well as state law to determine when he or she must give notice to beneficiaries, or perhaps a co-trustee.  Some examples requiring notice to certain individuals are resignation, delegation or designation of a successor trustee, rights of beneficiaries to withdraw principal at certain times, the naming of a professional investment advisor, of delegation of the investment function.
  • Duty to Furnish Information and to Communicate.  The trustee must keep the beneficiaries informed about the administration of the trust.  This may include information about investment performance, actions of the trustee or anything else reasonably requested by the beneficiary. 
  • Duty to Account.  The laws of most states require that the beneficiaries be given regular accountings reflecting the liabilities, receipts and disbursements of the trust.  The form and frequency varies from state to state or the language of the trust document. 
  • Duty Not to Delegate.  Generally, the trustee has the duty not to delegate acts requiring judgment and discretion (typically the trustee was chosen because he or she exhibited good judgment and sound exercise of discretion) unless specifically given that authority in the trust document or by statute.  The trustee may hire agents such as attorneys, accountants, investment advisors, etc. but the trustee should not blindly follow their advice.  The exception to that would be a Directed Trust, which is beyond the scope of this article
  • Duty of Loyalty.  The trustee has a duty to administer the trust solely in the interest of the beneficiaries.
  • Duty to Avoid Conflict of Interest.  The trustee should not use trust property for personal gain and should not use the trust assets in a manner that benefits the trustee personally.  The exception to this is when self-dealing provisions are written into the trust for the benefit of trustees who are also beneficiaries of the trust.  Even if such provisions are present, a trustee needs to be especially careful of self-dealing transactions and should consider appointing an independent trustee (if the trust or state law allows it) strictly for the purpose of authorizing such transactions. 
  • Duty to Segregate Trust Property.  The trustee must not co-mingle personal funds or any other non-trust funds with the assets of the trust.
  • Duty of Impartiality.  The trustee must treat all the beneficiaries impartially unless the trust itself instructs otherwise.  This becomes complicated when the trustee must balance the interests of the income beneficiaries with the interests of the remainder beneficiaries of a trust. 
  • Duty to Invest.  The trustee has a duty to invest the assets appropriately.  Unless otherwise specified, that includes a duty to diversify assets.
  • Duty to Enforce and Defend Claims.  The trustee must take reasonable steps to defend claims against the trust and to enforce claims the trust may have against others.  Part of the decision-making process in determining what is reasonable needs to be an assessment of the costs  of enforcing or defending versus the costs to the trust of not taking action on the claim.
  • Duty of Confidentiality.  The affairs of the trust should be kept confidential except with those who are by law “interested persons” such as the beneficiaries and co-trustees. The trustee should not disclose to third parties the identify or interests of the beneficiaries or the nature of trust assets, unless requested to do so by a beneficiary who may need certain information disclosed to a third party.  This duty of confidentiality also extends to personal things about beneficiaries that may come to the knowledge of the trustee in the process of administering the trust.

Any trustee paying close attention to the duties listed above will stand a much better chance of making the trustee experience a positive one and will be much more likely to avoid problems or lawsuits from beneficiaries.