Challenge to Three-Year-Old Trust Reformation is Dismissed

JANUARY 9, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 2
With the increased emphasis on (and use of) living trusts for estate planning, we lawyers are seeing more and more cases in which an old trust needs modification. Perhaps the tax laws have changed since a parent or grandparent died. Maybe what once made sense is less defensible in light of modern investment thinking, or the cost of living has caught up with what once seemed like a generous bequest. Family dynamics, always fluid, can change the reasonableness of a decades-old estate plan. Everyone knows someone whose family was once considered wealthy, and now is considerably less so. Any of those scenarios — and dozens of others — can be the basis of a desire to change something that seemed set in stone when the plan was adopted.

That’s when lawyers begin talking about trust reformation or modification. In recent years we have begun talking about decanting — pouring the contents of an older trust into the vessel of a new trust document. Not every state permits decanting, though, and state laws vary in how they approach modification of trusts. That can lead to uncertainty, family friction and even litigation.

Take, for instance, the recent Indiana case involving the trust — and the family — of John and Ruth Rhinehart. In 1997 Mr. and Mrs. Rhinehart established an irrevocable trust for the benefit of their daughter, Julie R. Waterfield. They placed $4 million in the trust, and provided that at least $100,000 per year would be paid to their daughter. When she dies her trust will divide into three new trusts — one for each of her children. Each of those trusts will pay $25,000 per year to the grandchild for whom it is set up.

That was certainly a generous gift, and should help provide for the welfare of the Rhinehart’s daughter and grandchildren for decades. In fact, the trust has grown — as of 2009 it was worth about $22 million. What could possibly be wrong with the Rhineharts’ largesse?

Sometime shortly after the trust was created, Julie Waterfield made a pledge to Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). She promised the University $1.5 million so that a new recital hall could be built in the campus’s new music building — a building, incidentally, named after her parents.

There was only one problem with her pledge. By late in 2002, stock holdings she had expected to use for the donation had become worthless. It appeared that the only way for her to meet her pledge would be to increase the annual payments from the trust established by her parents. She would need not $100,000 per year, but more like $275,000.

She and her lawyer approached the trustees about how to reform the trust to permit the larger distributions. Everyone agreed that if she could get the approval of all of the future beneficiaries, the trust could be modified. The trustees engaged Ms. Waterfield’s lawyer to complete the process, and he filed a court proceeding seeking an increase in the distribution. The Indiana court approved the increase, conditional on getting all eighteen potential beneficiaries — current, future and contingent — to sign consents.

At a family meeting in December, 2002, all three of Ms. Waterfield’s children signed the agreement to reform the trust. One of them requested a copy of the full agreement, and the trust’s lawyer sent him a copy a few days later. Ms. Waterfield’s distributions were increased and, presumably, her pledge fulfilled.

Three years later, two of Ms. Waterfield’s children expressed concern about the increase in their mother’s distributions. They argued that their signatures on the agreement to reform the trust had been obtained by fraud, and they brought suit against their mother and the corporate co-trustee of the trust. Ms. Waterfield and the trustee argued that it was too late — that the statute of limitations on such an action ran out two years after the change was approved. In any case, they insisted, there was no injury to Ms. Waterfield’s children: there would be plenty of money available to fund their annual $25,000 distributions. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. The appellate judges noted that both sons’ signatures were on the agreement, that they acknowledged they had gotten a letter from the lawyer which claimed it enclosed a copy of the agreement, and that it strained credulity to think that they would have failed to ask for the referenced enclosure if it had not in fact been in the envelope with the letter. In other words, their cause of action — if they had one — was known to them at least by the date of that letter. In Indiana, the statute of limitations on such an allegation of breach of fiduciary duty is two years — the Waterfield children waited more than a year too long before filing their lawsuit.

Furthermore, according to the appellate judges, the growth of the trust to $22 million — despite several years of increased distributions to Ms. Waterfield — adequately protected her sons’ interest so that they were not injured by the trust reformation. The Court of Appeals rejected their argument that the trust itself was injured by what they insisted was fraudulent behavior. The beneficiaries do not have the authority to bring their action on the basis of injury to the trust, but must show injury to themselves, according to the Court. Matter of Waterfield v. Trust Co., December 30, 2011.

Would the answer have been different in Arizona? Possibly. But it is more likely that the process itself would have been different in Arizona. With adoption of the Arizona Trust Code (a version of the Uniform Trust Code) it has become easier to modify or reform a trust. Some modifications can be done without the court’s involvement at all. Perhaps more importantly, it has become somewhat easier to clearly begin the running of the statute of limitations on claims against trustees under Arizona’s new law.

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