AUGUST 22, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 31
Carl and Debbie (not their real names) were married, and have two children together. After more than a decade together, Carl filed for a divorce in their home state of Massachusetts.
In the course of the divorce action, the court was required to divide Carl and Debbie’s assets equitably. But what would that mean for the trust established for Carl by his father back in the early years of the couple’s marriage?
Carl’s father had set up the trust to make distributions to Carl, his two siblings, his children, nieces and nephews. Debbie was not named as a beneficiary of the trust, and distributions could not be made to her. Over a two-year period just before the marriage ended, Carl had received over $800,000 in distributions from the trust. At the time of the divorce trial, the trust was valued at almost $25 million; Carl was one of eleven potential beneficiaries of the trust.
The divorce court had to figure out what to do about the trust. Noting that it provided for payments for Carl’s “comfortable support, health, maintenance, welfare and education,” the divorce judge decided that Debbie should be entitled to a share of the trust.
Calculating that Carl’s one-eleventh interest in the trust would be about $2.2 million, the divorce judge assigned 60% of that figure to Debbie. Carl appealed; the Massachusetts Court of Appeals affirmed the divorce judge’s determination. Carl appealed again, this time to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
The state’s high court disagreed, and reversed the award of an interest in the trust to Debbie. Part of the reason for the reversal: the trust included a spendthrift provision, which should prohibit any claim by third persons against Carl’s interest. The justices also noted that Carl was not one of the trustees of the trust (his brother and one of his father’s lawyers were trustees), that Carl’s interest was not a separate share of the trust (it provided that distributions could be unequal and, in fact, no distributions had yet been made to or for second-generation beneficiaries), and that no distributions had been made to Carl since the divorce petition was filed (though distributions had continued to his two siblings).
Because of the exact nature of the trust, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Carl’s interest in the trust was not available to be assigned to his wife in the divorce proceedings. The court did note, however, that when the divorce judge reconsiders the division of property, she might want to assign more of the couple’s assets to Debbie because of Carl’s potential benefits flowing from the trust. Pfannenstiehl v. Pfannenstiehl, August 4, 2016.
Many of our clients are concerned about the scenario in Carl and Debbie’s situation — but from the other side of the equation. If you want to leave some of your property to your child, but worry about the possibility of divorce or other marital problems, what can (or should) you do?
Arizona, of course, is a community property state. That means that everything a married couple acquires during the marriage is presumed to belong equally to both spouses. One huge exception to that general rule: gifts and inheritances.
If you give or leave money to your married daughter in Arizona, it is not community property. It remains her separate property — unless, of course, she converts it to community property by putting her spouse’s name on the title (that’s not the only way to convert it into community property, but it’s the most common one).
What about leaving property to your daughter in a trust? That should help protect it even better against her spouse — and her other creditors. It’s hard to explain the original divorce judge in Carl and Debbie’s case, or the Court of Appeals decision that upheld it, but the final outcome should clearly be the one adopted by the high court in Massachusetts. A trust for your daughter should not figure in her later divorce — though it is possible to imagine that her divorce court judge might award slightly more of the couple’s property to her spouse if she has ready access to a substantial trust account.
Does it make any difference who is named as trustee of your daughter’s trust? The court in Carl and Debbie’s case thought it was worth noting that Carl was not the trustee of his own trust, but the outcome should not have been different if he had been. A trustee has a duty to all of the potential beneficiaries, and therefore can’t just act in their own interest. That means that even if Carl had been trustee (or co-trustee) of the trust established by his father, his access to the trust’s principal would have been limited.
Would it make a difference if there were other compelling financial concerns involved? It should not, and in that regard it might be worth noting that Debbie’s earning potential was found to be substantially less than Carl’s, and that the couple’s daughter is a Down Syndrome child.
Should it matter whether a trust beneficiary has a history of relying on the trust? It probably does not — note that Carl and Debbie more than doubled their earnings in the years in which the trust made distributions.
Are you concerned by the possibility that an inheritance you leave to your child might become an element in a future divorce proceeding? Talk to your estate planning attorney about your options, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself discussing a trust arrangement.