JUNE 29, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 24
Clients are often unfamiliar with the concept of a “power of appointment.” If they don’t know what it is, they can be excused for not knowing whether they have one, or how to use it.
Suppose Thomas leaves $10,000 to charities in his trust, but gives his brother Richard the authority to choose which charities. What Richard has is a power of appointment. Because Thomas says that only charities qualify, Richard’s power of appointment is said to be “limited” — in this case, limited to charitable organizations.
Now suppose that another portion of Thomas’s trust says that his other brother (you knew he would be named, Harold, didn’t you?) can decide how to distribute $10,000. Harold’s power of appointment could go to anyone — including to Harold himself. It is a “general” power of appointment.
As you can imagine, it would be good for Thomas to spell out what Richard and Harold have to say, or sign, in order to let the trustee know whom they have selected to receive their respective gifts. Since Thomas had his trust prepared by a capable lawyer (with a sense of whimsy), it says that “the power specified herein may be exercised by Richard delivering a signed, notarized document on blue paper to the trustee on a Wednesday before noon, Mountain Standard time.” Harold’s power of appointment is identical, except that it specifies green paper and afternoon delivery.
Can Thomas impose those (silly) requirements on the proper exercise of the powers of appointment he is giving to his two brothers? Of course he can — nothing in the law of trusts requires sober, businesslike language. The signer of a trust has considerable leeway to impose pretty much any technical requirements he (or she — or they) wish.
That’s the principle involved in a recent Arizona appellate decision. It involves a trust established by a husband and wife, and a power of appointment given to whichever spouse survived the other.
William and Mary Quick signed a joint, revocable trust in 1985. As is often the case, the trust was for their own benefit so long as both lived, and continued to be for the benefit of the survivor upon the death of the first spouse. One unusual provision was included in the trust, though: upon the death of the first spouse, the entire trust would become irrevocable, assuring that the couple’s two sons would receive everything upon the second spouse’s death.
The opinion does not explain whether William and Mary’s two sons were to receive equal shares under the trust’s default terms, but let us assume that they were. One thing the trust did provide, though, was that the surviving spouse would have a limited power of appointment, and could change the shares of the two sons after the first spouse’s death. The only requirement for exercise of the limited power of appointment was that it had to be done by a will, and that the will had to make specific reference to the power of appointment.
Mary died in 2003. A year later, William apparently decided that he wanted to change his sons’ shares of the trust. How did he do that? He signed a new trust document — a “restatement” of the trust — which altered the distribution shares upon his death. William lived for several years after the trust restatement was signed, but no further changes were made before his death, and he did not refer to his power of appointment in his will.
William was the sole trustee of the trust after Mary’s death. Assuming all assets were community property (which we don’t actually know to be true), half of the trust’s assets came from “his” share of the community. We can also reasonably assume that the trust permitted him, as trustee, to dip into the trust’s principal and distribute it to himself, at least in some circumstances. So was his failure to refer to the power of appointment in his will a problem?
One of the couple’s sons thought so, and a legal dispute was inevitable. Both brothers joined in asking the probate court for instructions: was William’s apparent exercise of his power of appointment valid? Should the trustee make distributions between them based on William and Mary’s original scheme, or rely on William’s restated trust document from after Mary’s death?
The probate court decided that what William had done was ineffective. Since the original trust became irrevocable on Mary’s death, and it required William to make any changes in his will, that was what was required. The original division between the two sons would be upheld.
The Arizona Court of Appeals agreed. It was not good enough that William almost did it right. Nor was it sufficient that William had the authority, and his wishes were clear. The trust required that the limited power of appointment must be exercised in William’s will, and that the will specifically refer to the power itself. William’s will did not exercise the power of appointment, or even refer to the original trust (or, for that matter, the restated version). Quisling v. Quisling, June 16, 2015.
Assuming, for the sake of education, that William really did mean to change the distribution shares of his two sons, what should he have done? The easy answer is that he should have followed the trust’s instructions: he could make the change by simply referring to the trust in his will, and no change needed to be made in the trust document itself.
Under Arizona law, though, that probably was not his only choice. William might have been able to “decant” the irrevocable trust into a new trust. He might have been able to withdraw some, most or even all of the trust’s principal and put it into his own name (and, subsequently, a new trust). He might have been able to avoid disputes by entering into an agreement with his two sons about how to handle the trust for the rest of his life and even after his death. But by simply restating the trust, without more, he failed to accomplish his goals. The lesson: exercise of a power of appointment must follow any instructions given with the power itself.