Fleming & Curti, PLC

Beneficiaries Permitted to Modify Trust Terms by Agreement

OCTOBER 19, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 38

Not every client we speak with wants to set up a trust for generations of descendants, but some do. The notion of allowing assets to grow for two or three (or more) generations can be attractive.

It is difficult, of course, to imagine what one's grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be like when they grow up. There's another challenge that is less obvious, though -- what will the economy, the legal environment, and the very notion of trust planning look like in, say, 80 years?

We're not particularly good at predicting the look of the landscape at the turn of the next century, but occasionally we get a little insight into the problem when considering the plans made several generations ago. Trusts can easily live for a century, and the problems facing trust beneficiaries today might or might not have been considered when those trusts were drafted.

That's what Pennsylvania's intermediate appellate court had to deal with in a recent case it considered. At issue was the trust established by Edward Winslow Taylor in 1928. Mr. Taylor died in 1939, and the trust became irrevocable. It continues -- altered in at least two fundamental ways -- since then.

Originally, the trust named The Colonial Trust Company as trustee. Two years later he amended the trust to change the trustee to The Pennsylvania Company for Insurance on Lives and Granting Annuities as trustee, since it had assumed the business of the initial trustee in a merger. In the following eight decades, a series of mergers and buyouts had left Wells Fargo Bank, a national bank and trust company, as trustee.

The trust initially paid its income to Mr. Taylor's daughter, Anna Taylor Wallace. When she died in 1971, she used her power to direct the trust income to her oldest son, Frank Wallace, Jr. Upon his death in 2008, the trust was divided into four separate trusts -- one for the benefit of each of his children, with each then being worth a little less than $2 million. Each trust will continue until 2028.

A lot has changed in the practice and law governing administration of trusts since the 1920s. As just the latest illustration, Pennsylvania, where these trusts are administered, has adopted the Uniform Trust Code (as has Arizona). Trusts written almost a century ago seem hopelessly dated today.

Two years ago, three of the four trust beneficiaries suggested updating the language of the trust to reflect more modern thinking. One change they wanted to make: they argued that the trust should be modified to allow the four of them, if they chose, to change the trustee from Wells Fargo to a new corporate trustee.

Though no beneficiary objected to the change, Wells Fargo did object. The bank convinced the Philadelphia judge that the new Pennsylvania Trust Act did not allow such a change, even if the beneficiaries had all agreed. The beneficiaries appealed.

In the appellate court, the beneficiaries argued that all they were doing was to modernize the trust's language. The inclusion of a power to change trustees, they insisted, would be considered commonplace today. Furthermore, the Pennsylvania version of the Trust Code clearly permitted modifications so long as all beneficiaries (and the original settlor, if he had still been living) agreed.

Not so fast, insisted Wells Fargo. The scholars who drafted the Uniform Trust Code had clearly indicated that their intention was not to permit a change of trustee by modification of the trust document -- even if all the beneficiaries did agree. The bank pointed to the comments written by the uniform code's drafters in support of their argument.

The appellate court, in a split (2-1) decision, sided with the beneficiaries. According to the majority opinion, the comments written by the drafting committee shouldn't even be consulted unless there is ambiguity in the language of the statutes. Here, there is not -- the Pennsylvania Trust Act permits beneficiaries, acting together, to make a change that includes the power to change trustees.

The dissenting judge would have found that removal of a trustee is a different matter from other trust amendment provisions. In fact, the Pennsylvania statute includes a specific method for trustee removal -- and the agreement of the beneficiaries is not a method included in that separate statute. The specific trustee removal provision should have governed over the general modification provision, in the view of the dissenting judge. Trust of Edward Taylor, September 18, 2015.

As we note above, Arizona has also adopted a version of the Uniform Trust Code. Does that mean that an Arizona case would be decided the same way? Perhaps not.

Arizona made small but significant changes to the uniform law before adopting it. Those changes might well compel the opposite result -- and particularly where the question appears to have been a close question even under Pennsylvania's version of the uniform law.

Nonetheless, we like to see discussion about the Edward Winslow Taylor case, for at least these three reasons:

  1. It highlights how much hubris is involved when we "plan" for management of assets a century or so after our own demise. That doesn't mean it can't be done, or even that it shouldn't be tried -- but it does remind us that flexibility is key.
  2. We presume that Mr. Taylor was a descendant of Edward Winslow -- a signer of the Mayflower Compact. While we're not descended from Mr. Winslow, we are descended from his sister. It makes us feel proud to see that this (our) patrician family remains relevant today.
  3. "We" in this case means your author and his brother Steven. Not only does Steven now live in Philadelphia (where Mr. Taylor's trust is administered and was litigated), but October 19 (the day of publication for this little newsletter) happens to be his birthday. It's a small world, with plenty of odd circles to keep us mildly entertained (and by "us", here I mean me).

Happy birthday, Steve.

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One Response

  1. Mark Rubin

     /  October 19, 2015

    A fine piece of writing about an interesting issue. By the way, in Arizona can live for as long as five centuries. If such a bastardized version of the common law of trusts was in effect when the writer's great ... great uncle arrived on these shores, attorneys would be only 105 years away from getting ready to deal with the end game for the trust.

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