New Florida “Trust Protector” Case Shows How the Idea Can Work

DECEMBER 8, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 44

We’ve written several times about the relatively new concept of “trust protectors.” The idea is that a trust can be much more flexible if someone — necessarily someone who is entirely trustworthy — has the power to make at least some kinds of changes after the trust becomes irrevocable. The precise power of a trust protector can usually be spelled out in the trust document, but frequently includes the power to amend the trust (or even terminate it), to change beneficiaries or to remove a trustee and name a successor.

While trust protectors have been the subject of much writing, they are still new enough not to have been spotted in the court system very often. Some of that, of course, is because the very existence of a trust protector can sometimes avoid the need for court action — or head off a court contest, if someone is unhappy with the trust’s administration. Mostly, though, the idea is too new, and has not even been formalized in many states.

Arizona has a specific statute allowing trust protectors. States are increasingly codifying similar provisions, often as part of the Uniform Trust Code, which has been adopted now in over half of the states. Florida is one of those states, having adopted its version of the Uniform Trust Code — expressly including a provision for trust protectors — in 2008. Now a new appellate case out of Florida gives some insight into how the trust protector might be used.

Zach Moore (not his real name) was a successful businessman who retired to Florida, where he lived with his second wife Patty. He had two children from his first marriage. Like many people, Zach decided that he should have a revocable living trust; he signed trust documents in 1999 and rewrote them in 2008, the same year that Florida adopted the Uniform Trust Code. His new trust included a provision permitting the trustee to name a trust protector in order to amend the trust to clarify any ambiguity in the future. He also included some specific language making it clear that after his death the trust was to be primarily for his wife’s benefit, and that his children’s shares would be created only on her death. He and Patty were named as trustees, and upon his death Patty would continue as sole trustee.

Zach died in 2010, and Patty took over as sole trustee. Not long after that, Zach’s two children brought a suit against Patty alleging that she was not managing the trust properly, and demanding an accounting from her. She filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that they were not beneficiaries of the trust at all — their separate-share trusts, she argued, would be created only upon her death.

The trial judge disagreed, ruling that the trust would divide into separate shares, not be transferred to new trusts. That meant that the children were beneficiaries, although their interests did not arise until Patty’s death. Still, they would have standing to challenge her administration of the trust.

Patty’s response: she appointed a trust protector, as provided for in the trust document. That trust protector amended the trust to make clear that upon Patty’s death the then-trustee was to distribute the remaining assets to a new trust, which would then split into two shares for Zach’s children.

Did that resolve the issue? Not quite. The trial judge ruled that the purported amendment by the trust protector was ineffective, because it did not benefit all the beneficiaries of the original trust — it would leave Zach’s children with no power to challenge Patty’s actions as trustee.

Patty appealed, and the Florida Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. The appellate judges first noted that the then-new Florida Trust Code allowed for inclusion of trust protectors, and that the powers given to the trust protector in Zach’s trust were not outside the scope of the law. Importantly, the appellate court specifically rejected the children’s argument that the Uniform Trust Code makes court modification the only way to amend an irrevocable trust.

The Court of Appeals went on to note that the trial judge’s reading of the trust to find a single trust dividing into shares was not unambiguously clear from the trust document. That meant that the trust protector’s actions to clarify an ambiguous provision was clearly within his authority — and the amendment was valid. “From the trust protector’s affidavit,” wrote the court, “it appears that the husband settled on the multiple-trust scheme for the very purpose of preventing the children from challenging the manner in which the wife spent the money” in the trust he had established. That purpose should be upheld, decided the appellate judges; the court specifically approved the trust protector’s amendments. Minassian v. Rachins, December 3, 2014.

Arizona’s trust protector statute is, if anything, broader than Florida’s statute. Powers that can be assigned to a trust protector are spelled out, with the specific provision that they are not limited to those listed. Trust protectors can be an important and effective way to address possible future disputes; it can make sense to include a trust protector, especially in a case where future contentiousness is anticipated.

 

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