Conservator May Be Able To Act As Successor Trustee

Let’s say you have created a revocable living trust, and you have named yourself as trustee. You also name your two children as successor trustees, to act together upon your death or incapacity. Two years later you become incapacitated; because of a dispute between your two children about who should handle assets outside the trust, the probate court names a local bank as your conservator. Now who handles your trust — the bank, or your children?

Before we answer that question, let us complicate it. You are also the beneficiary of a trust set up by your late husband — and you are trustee of that trust, as well. About half of the assets the two of you owned are included in each of the two trusts. Your husband’s trust names you as trustee (now that he is deceased) and names the two children as successor trustees if anything should happen to you. Does your conservator have any authority over that trust?

Those were precisely the questions faced by a probate judge in South Dakota when Evelyn Didier became incapacitated. The bank appointed as her conservator asked the court to clarify that it had control over both trusts as well as Ms. Didier’s non-trust assets. The judge agreed, and Ms. Didier’s daughter Barbara Didier-Stager appealed.

Court appointment of a conservator does not amount to appointment of a successor trustee, argued Ms. Didier’s daughter. In fact, appointment of a conservator proves the incapacity that triggers a change in trustees — resulting in the son and daughter taking over as successor trustee of their mother’s trust. As to their father’s trust, the successor trustee provisions are triggered by the conservatorship in the same way — though our simplified version of the facts described above fails to clarify that the successor trustees of that trust were actually Ms. Didier-Stager and another local bank — different from the bank acting as Ms. Didier’s conservator.

South Dakota, like Arizona, has adopted the Uniform Probate Code — though South Dakota’s version has been updated more recently and is more current. The Code includes provisions about guardianship and conservatorship (though now those sections have been set aside as a separate uniform law, the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act). Those uniform laws permit the judge in a conservatorship proceeding to enter orders related to the protected person’s estate plan.

So, reasoned the South Dakota court, the probate court could permit Ms. Didier’s conservator to do anything that Ms. Didier herself could have done before becoming incapacitated. Her own trust was revocable and amendable — if she had wanted to do so, she could have changed the successor trustee at any time. She could have named the bank that was ultimately appointed as her conservator. Consequently, the court could allow her conservator to assume the powers of successor trustee over that trust.

The late Mr. Didiers trust was a different matter, however. Ms. Didier herself did not have the power to change the trustee, and so her conservator could not exercise that power on her behalf. That trust would have to be dealt with separately, and the Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the probate judge to determine what to do about Mr. Didier’s trust. Conservatorship of Didier, June 30, 2010.

Does this mean that Mr. Didier’s successor trustees automatically take over, instead of Mrs. Didier’s conservator? Probably not. Other provisions of the Probate Code give the probate judge authority over trust administration, and if it appears that there is some reason not to allow the named successors to become trustee there will presumably be an order to that effect. But it does change the discussion from a choice between blindly following the document or giving Mrs. Didier’s conservator power to do anything she could do. Instead, the probate court will have to determine which approach is most consistent with the trust, with proper administration, and with the best interests of the trust’s beneficiaries.

The Uniform law actually goes quite a bit further today than the 1974 version originally adopted in Arizona (though Arizona has updated portions of the law several times). Reviewing the statute in the context of the Didier case highlights some of the changes. Among the powers given to conservators by the “new” Code (as adopted in South Dakota, for instance) is the power to “make, amend, or revoke the protected person’s will.” (See Section 411(a)(7) of the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act.) Court approval is required, but the very notion of a conservator changing the protected person’s estate plan might strike some as dangerous.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC