Lawyer, Acting as Trustee, Challenged for Self-Dealing

DECEMBER 3, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 44
One of the great advantages of a trust can be the ability to bypass court supervision and review. One of the great disadvantage of a trust can be that it bypasses court supervision and review. A recent California Court of Appeals decision highlights the problem nicely — and at the same time provides a warning for trustees.

California attorney Douglas Mahaffey represented Tom Matthews (not his real name) in a personal injury action in 1992. He helped Matthews recover a $3.5 million settlement, and then agreed to act as trustee, handling his client’s money. One concern lawyer and client shared was Matthews’ possible exhaustion of the funds; they agreed that a separate trust would be set up to protect $356,967 for the benefit of Matthews’ daughter Katrina (not her real name). Mahaffey would act as trustee of that trust, as well.

Four years after Katrina’s trust was set up, Mahaffey loaned himself $210,000 from the trust. He signed a note, with an indicated rate of 8%. There was no security for the loan — Mahaffey did not pledge his home, his office or business, or any other assets to protect the trust from default. His law firm did guarantee the note, indicating that if he did not make payments the firm itself would be liable.

Mahaffey did not make payments on the loan, and did not tell anyone about it at the time. Later Matthews, the father of the trust beneficiary, found about it, and Mahaffey asked him to sign a a set of documents ratifying what Mahaffey had done with his, Matthews’, money. After Katrina reached her majority she found out about the loan and sued Mahaffey.

A California judge agreed with Katrina that Mahaffey should not have loaned himself the money, but also that his motivation included a desire to “protect” Katrina’s money from, among other things, the possibility of litigation brought by Matthews against Mahaffey. Nonetheless, the judge removed Mahaffey as trustee, ordered him to repay the loan immediately, and added interest of almost another $200,000, and imposed additional interest of $110/day for each day the sums remained unpaid.

The California appellate court reviewed the record (after Mahaffey appealed) and concurred with the outcome. The appellate judges noted that “the trial judge went easy on Mahaffey.” The court notes a number of items in the litany of objections to Mahaffey’s administration of the trust:

  1. The loan was self-dealing, even if Mahaffey motivation was not abjectly self-interested. He should not have loaned trust money to himself.
  2. The interest rate (8%) was slightly less than the “prime” interest rate at the time. That made the self-dealing more obvious and problematic.
  3. The fact that the note called for no actual payments — not even interest — for 10 years, and that it was unilaterally extended by Mahaffey when it came due, further showed his self-dealing. In fact, no payments were made on the note at all until 2002, and then only interest payments were made up until the time of trial.
  4. The failure to adequately secure the loan was another strike against Mahaffey. The significance of that failure was not truly evident until after the trial; the appellate court notes that Mahaffey and his law firm filed for bankruptcy after the judgment was entered but before the appeal was decided.
  5. The opinion is replete with information about another trust Mahaffey administered — the trust for Matthews, holding the rest of his lawsuit settlement proceeds. It turns out that Matthews separately sued Mahaffey for mismanagement, but that lawsuit had been dismissed because it was filed too long after Matthews learned of the items he later complained about.

It is easy to criticize what is appears to be obvious self-dealing by a trustee after the fact. What happens time and again, however, is that trustees reach a tipping point by degrees — first rationalizing that they will pay interest rates above what the trust could get in other investments, then by adding the thought that they are good credit risks, then by rationalizing that it saves everyone time, money and taxes to keep the transaction in the trust “family.” The right answer: just say no. If you are a trustee, do not borrow money from the trust. Period.

As the Court of Appeals noted in this instance: “It is strong poison for attorneys who double as trustees to make loans to themselves.” Indeed. It is equally strong poison for any other trustee, though attorneys face the additional risk of losing their law licenses as well as being removed and surcharged for self-dealing. Although the appellate opinion does not indicate what has happened or might happen, Mahaffey could still face discipline or even disbarment by the State Bar of California. Grunder v. Mahaffey, November 7, 2012.

A critical reader might note that nothing about the description here explains our introductory observation. Trusts ordinarily do not have to be supervised by any court — that is one of the primary selling points for trusts, in fact. We generally agree. The cost of posting a bond, filing periodic accountings with a court and giving formal notice can be high, and there is often no need to seek an independent review of trustees’ behavior. But there is a trade-off involved. If the informal and extra-judicial alternative of trust planning is being considered, there really ought to be some way to monitor the trustee’s behavior.

Could Matthews, in the story told above, have demanded accountings, and more closely followed Mahaffey’s actions? Undoubtedly. Would that have prevented the self-dealing, or at least caused it to be cured earlier? Perhaps. But the very advantages of trusts (privacy, lack of formal accounting requirements and limited independent oversight) can often lead to the largest risk inherent in trust administration.

How is a thoughtful planner to respond? Pick your trustees carefully (you might, for instance, want to know how often the trustee acts in that capacity), and then provide a monitoring mechanism (accountings to a trusted third person, perhaps). It can be a challenge to balance efficiency and risk.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC