Posts Tagged ‘NCCUSL’

Conservator May Be Able To Act As Successor Trustee

Let’s say you have created a revocable living trust, and you have named yourself as trustee. You also name your two children as successor trustees, to act together upon your death or incapacity. Two years later you become incapacitated; because of a dispute between your two children about who should handle assets outside the trust, the probate court names a local bank as your conservator. Now who handles your trust — the bank, or your children?

Before we answer that question, let us complicate it. You are also the beneficiary of a trust set up by your late husband — and you are trustee of that trust, as well. About half of the assets the two of you owned are included in each of the two trusts. Your husband’s trust names you as trustee (now that he is deceased) and names the two children as successor trustees if anything should happen to you. Does your conservator have any authority over that trust?

Those were precisely the questions faced by a probate judge in South Dakota when Evelyn Didier became incapacitated. The bank appointed as her conservator asked the court to clarify that it had control over both trusts as well as Ms. Didier’s non-trust assets. The judge agreed, and Ms. Didier’s daughter Barbara Didier-Stager appealed.

Court appointment of a conservator does not amount to appointment of a successor trustee, argued Ms. Didier’s daughter. In fact, appointment of a conservator proves the incapacity that triggers a change in trustees — resulting in the son and daughter taking over as successor trustee of their mother’s trust. As to their father’s trust, the successor trustee provisions are triggered by the conservatorship in the same way — though our simplified version of the facts described above fails to clarify that the successor trustees of that trust were actually Ms. Didier-Stager and another local bank — different from the bank acting as Ms. Didier’s conservator.

South Dakota, like Arizona, has adopted the Uniform Probate Code — though South Dakota’s version has been updated more recently and is more current. The Code includes provisions about guardianship and conservatorship (though now those sections have been set aside as a separate uniform law, the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act). Those uniform laws permit the judge in a conservatorship proceeding to enter orders related to the protected person’s estate plan.

So, reasoned the South Dakota court, the probate court could permit Ms. Didier’s conservator to do anything that Ms. Didier herself could have done before becoming incapacitated. Her own trust was revocable and amendable — if she had wanted to do so, she could have changed the successor trustee at any time. She could have named the bank that was ultimately appointed as her conservator. Consequently, the court could allow her conservator to assume the powers of successor trustee over that trust.

The late Mr. Didiers trust was a different matter, however. Ms. Didier herself did not have the power to change the trustee, and so her conservator could not exercise that power on her behalf. That trust would have to be dealt with separately, and the Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the probate judge to determine what to do about Mr. Didier’s trust. Conservatorship of Didier, June 30, 2010.

Does this mean that Mr. Didier’s successor trustees automatically take over, instead of Mrs. Didier’s conservator? Probably not. Other provisions of the Probate Code give the probate judge authority over trust administration, and if it appears that there is some reason not to allow the named successors to become trustee there will presumably be an order to that effect. But it does change the discussion from a choice between blindly following the document or giving Mrs. Didier’s conservator power to do anything she could do. Instead, the probate court will have to determine which approach is most consistent with the trust, with proper administration, and with the best interests of the trust’s beneficiaries.

The Uniform law actually goes quite a bit further today than the 1974 version originally adopted in Arizona (though Arizona has updated portions of the law several times). Reviewing the statute in the context of the Didier case highlights some of the changes. Among the powers given to conservators by the “new” Code (as adopted in South Dakota, for instance) is the power to “make, amend, or revoke the protected person’s will.” (See Section 411(a)(7) of the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act.) Court approval is required, but the very notion of a conservator changing the protected person’s estate plan might strike some as dangerous.

Interstate Guardianship Law Adopted in Arizona

JULY 12, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 22
Among the less-controversial steps taken by the Arizona Legislature in 2010 was the adoption of the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act, which is usually referred to by its unpronounceable acronym UAGPPJA. The new law, which becomes effective on July 29, should make it easier for families to handle interstate guardianship and conservatorship issues. At the same time it should make it harder for warring families to move an ailing or demented family member across state lines for personal advantage.

Problems with interstate application of guardianship and conservatorship laws have been all too common. Imagine a typical scenario: father and stepmother, married for 25 years, live in Pennsylvania. Three children from father’s first marriage live in Florida, Arizona and Illinois. After stepmother checks father into a Pennsylvania adult care home, the children meet in Pennsylvania and decide they are better equipped to make decisions about their father’s care. Without telling their stepmother of their intentions they check father out of his adult care home, put him on an airplane, fly to Tucson and check him in to a nursing home here. Then they file a guardianship and conservatorship action in Arizona, giving notice to his wife in Pennsylvania.

Under existing law such a proceeding would be permissible, and could result in the Arizona courts making decisions about not only the Pennsylvania man’s living arrangements and medical care, but also over his (and his wife’s) Pennsylvania property. The cost and trouble of traveling to Arizona, hiring a local attorney and objecting to the Arizona court proceedings might well deter his wife from protecting herself or asserting her views on the proper care for her husband.

After the UAGPPJA goes into effect, however, such interstate moves to secure legal advantage should become ineffective. The Arizona courts will be instructed to defer to the courts of the home state of any proposed ward.

There are other frequent — and much more benign — interstate problems in guardianship and conservatorship proceedings that are addressed by the UAGPPJA, too. One arises when the subject of an Arizona guardianship legitimately moves out of state. Imagine, for example, that a working couple have become guardian for their 22-year-old son who is developmentally disabled. Now they want to move to another state, and they will take their son with them. Will their Arizona guardianship be valid in the new state? Will they have to initiate an entirely new proceeding in the new state? If they do not, will they have to report to the Arizona courts for the rest of their son’s life — even though Arizona no longer has any direct involvement in his life?

If the new state has also adopted the UAGPPJA (and so far 19 other states and the District of Columbia have) the process of transferring a guardianship or conservatorship is vastly simplified. A filing needs to be made with the Arizona court, then with the courts of the new state. Once both courts have agreed that the guardianship can be transferred, the Arizona proceeding is terminated and the new state takes over. The process is much simpler than a second proceeding in the new state, and it ensures approval from the Arizona courts before any action is taken. The same process can work in reverse for people moving into Arizona.

One other interstate problem arises when, for example, an Arizona conservatorship involves property in another state. Under the existing patchwork of laws, each state is different — and many of them require an entirely new conservatorship (a “protective proceeding” in the language of the interstate jurisdiction law) with court-appointed attorneys, bond premiums and separate accountings filed in the state with the property. The new law makes the process much simpler: once the Arizona conservator has filed appropriate documents with the courts of the other state, he or she can proceed as if appointed in that state. No separate court proceedings required, no additional legal fees incurred, and no potential conflicts between two courts overseeing the same conservatorship.

The UAGPPJA is available online through the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. Arizona’s version, the new Arizona Revised Statutes sections 14-12101 and following sections, differ very little from the proposed uniform law. The list of states adopting the UAGPPJA (which list is steadily growing) is also online at the NCCUSL website.

UTMA Custodian Accountable After Beneficiary’s Majority


A recent case out of Kentucky deals with a fairly arcane legal question, but it gives a chance to remind people about UTMA accounts and the rules governing them. The issue in that case: what duties does a UTMA custodian have to account to the minor beneficiary after he or she reaches the age of majority?

For the uninitiated, UTMA refers to the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act. It has been adopted in some form in forty-eight states (the holdouts: South Carolina and Vermont, both of which still rely on the earlier and similar Uniform Gifts to Minors Act, or UGMA). It basically creates a simplified statutory trust-like arrangement. Want to give money to a minor? Just pick a custodian and title the gift to “John Doe, Custodian under the UTMA for benefit of Janet Doe.” There’s not even any magic about those words — the most important thing is that the letters UTMA appear in the title.

When you create such an account the money does not belong to the named custodian, but to the minor beneficiary. Depending on the source of the money (and your state’s variant of the UTMA), the minor is entitled to receive the remaining funds at age 18 or 21. In the meantime the custodian, like a trustee of a trust, can decide to use the money for education, health or other benefits for the “minor” (remembering that the beneficiary can sometimes be over 18 but younger than 21).

That’s the arrangement Allyne M. Peter set up for her grandson Emil Peter IV back in 1983. She left over $83,000 in a UTMA account naming her son Emil Peter III as custodian. Over the years some of that money was distributed to her grandson, but in 2007 — years after he had turned 21 — Emil Peter IV decided his father hadn’t given him enough information so that he could figure out whether there should still be money in the account. So he sued his father to compel an accounting for the UTMA account.

Emil Peter III argued that the UTMA statute required such suits to be brought in a lower Kentucky court, and that his son’s suit should be dismissed. One problem with that: he also made clear that he thought the same statute required the beneficiary to still be a minor when he brought the suit, so his reading would leave his son with no court in which to challenge his father’s administration.

The issue in the Peter family dispute is arcane, and it would not arise in Arizona (because both kinds of suits would be brought in the same court). But it does give us a chance to reflect that the custodian of a UTMA account is much like a trustee in a number of ways. One similarity: both types of fiduciary must be prepared to account for the administration of the money they handle.

That was what the Kentucky Court of Appeals decided. Even though it might not be crystal clear whether the UTMA could be read as requiring that any suit be brought in the lower court, the possibility that neither court might have authority made the appellate judges determine that Emil Peter IV’s current proceeding should continue. Peter v. Schultz-Gibson, January 29, 2010.

The legal issue might seem arcane to non-lawyers, or to residents of states with only one choice of trial court for UTMA accounts, but it probably doesn’t feel all that arcane to Brandon Gould. That’s because last spring he brought a similar action against his grandmother in the New York Surrogate’s Court. The New York UTMA statute, like the Kentucky version, authorizes minors over the age of 14 (or a family member acting on their behalf) to bring an action in a lower court — in New York, the Surrogate’s Court. Brandon’s grandmother argued that because Brandon had turned 21 (the age of “majority” for New York’s UTMA law) several months before filing the action, he could not use the lower court. The New York Surrogate agreed and dismissed Brandon’s lawsuit — arguably the same fate that would have awaited Emil Peter IV if he had filed in the lower Kentucky court. In Re Gould, May 26, 2009.

The disposition of both Emil Peter IV’s and Brandon Gould’s lawsuits really beg the question. What is the accounting requirement under the UTMA statute?

The law itself does not provide much guidance (you can look at the truly “uniform” UTMA statute at the website of NCCUSL, the organization that promulgates uniform laws in the U.S.). Section 12 of the Act does require the custodian to “keep records of all transactions,” and to “make them available for inspection” by the minor or the minor’s parents or guardian. The part of the law disputed in the Peter and Gould cases, Section 19, permits a minor over age 14, a guardian or a family member to demand an accounting — but leaves ambiguous what rights the “minor” has after reaching the age of majority.

Still, it is clear that the custodian is a fiduciary and must use the money for the benefit of the minor. UTMA money may not be commingled with other money, income in the UTMA account should not be reported under the custodian’s Social Security number, and the custodian may not use UTMA money for his or her own benefit. One way or another, the minor can compel an accounting and release of the money when he or she reaches the appropriate age (18 or 21, depending on the state and circumstances).

An account set up under your state’s UTMA can be a streamlined, simplified way of giving (or leaving) money to a child, a grandchild or anyone else under age 21 (or, in some cases, 18). It can save time, cost and headaches associated with setting up a more formal trust arrangement, and it certainly makes tax preparation easier for the custodian (taxation simply flows to the minor beneficiary, with no separate return required for the account itself). Selection of the custodian is critical, however — you should choose someone who appreciates that the funds ultimately belong to the minor beneficiary, and must be turned over to him or her at the appropriate age, together with a complete accounting.

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